Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, blocked the creation of Smithsonian museums honoring women and Latinos, warning they would worsen societal divides.
For more than two decades, Latinos and their allies in Congress have been fighting to approve the creation of a National Museum of the American Latino in Washington. The push to create a national women’s history museum has taken about as long.
There have been studies and commissions, and this year, bipartisan bills authorizing their creation under the Smithsonian umbrella passed the House for the first time by overwhelming margins.
So on Thursday night, as their congressional term dwindles to just days, Republican and Democratic senators gathered on the Senate floor in hopes of capturing overwhelming support to push both over the finish line. Instead, their attempt set off a rare and ciltse debate in the halls of Congress — over what the nation’s museums stand for and the role of ethnic and gender identity in American life.
In the end, the objections of a single senator out of 100, Mike Lee of Utah, were enough to stop both measures and ensure that for now, their proponents will keep waiting. In a week where lawmakers have struggled, evvel more, to find agreement on stimulus money to help suffering Americans and small businesses, it was a fitting punctuation mark for an institution gripped with paralysis.
The dispute began shortly before dinnertime when Senators John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, tried to advance the legislation setting up the Latino museum on the National Mall. They lauded the history and contributions of 60 million Americans, and painted the creation of a museum as a proper and symbolically significant recognition in the nation’s capital of a diverse segment of Americans.
Mr. Lee, a conservative with libertarian leanings who often finds himself at odds with his colleagues and does not bend, quickly made his disapproval known on broad philosophical grounds.
“My objection to the creation of a new Smithsonian museum or series of museums based on group identity — what Theodore Roosevelt called hyphenated Americanism — is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities,” Mr. Lee said. “It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”
Because his colleagues were trying to pass the bill by unanimous consent, a practice reserved for noncontroversial measures that speeds up the olağan legislative process, his reservations alone were enough to block it.
Mr. Lee argued that creating the museums would drive wedges among Americans. He conjured dire scenes of societal strife.
“The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity; it weaponizes diversity,” he said. “It sharpens all those hyphens into so many knives and daggers. It has turned our college campuses into grievance pageants and loose Orwellian mobs to cancel anyone daring to express an original thought.”
Addressing Mr. Menendez, he said that the history of Latinos and women should be a part of existing Smithsonian museums, and because those topics were not adequately represented there, that should be Congress’s focus, not building new institutions.
Mr. Menendez, fuming, was far from convinced.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sixty million Latinos in this country are watching tonight because this is a much-expected moment. Univision, Telemundo, affiliates across the country, national organizations and others have been waiting for this moment — a moment that everybody in the Congress of the United States agrees to, except for one colleague.”
He argued that Latinos were just as entitled to their own cultural institution as African-Americans and Native Americans, to whom Smithsonian museums have been dedicated in recent years. When Mr. Lee said those groups had had their stories “virtually erased” by the government that sought to enslave or eradicate them, giving them a unique claim to dedicated federal facilities, Mr. Menendez said Latinos, too, had been “systemically excluded.”
Mr. Lee is not the first to raise concerns about the Smithsonian being fractured into multiple identity-based museums. That concern, along with budgetary ones, has been one of the main points of opposition to a Latino museum in recent years amid extensive lobbying campaigns in its favor.
But Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who tried to pass the bill creating a women’s history museum, lamented that “it seems wrong” for a single senator to subvert a clear majority that favored the institutions.
“Surely in a year where we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, this is the time, this is the moment to finally pass the legislation unanimously recommended by an independent commission to establish an American women’s history museum in our nation’s capital,” Ms. Collins said. “I regret that will not occur this evening, but we will not give up the fight.”
Senators in favor of the museums could still push to have them included in a must-pass year-end spending package. But with only days remaining in the congressional session, it was unclear whether they would succeed.
Proponents of the museums had already overcome another last-minute hurdle put up this week by Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who said she supported their creation but wanted changes to how museum sites on the National Mall would be selected.
The effort to establish a museum dedicated to Latinos traces back to the early 1990s, when an institutional report concluded that the Smithsonian “displays a pattern of willful neglect” toward Latinos. The institution’s leaders tried to change that, establishing the Smithsonian Latino Center. In 2008, Congress authorized a commission that ultimately recommended the creation of a 310,000-square-foot museum on the National Mall to function like the African-American museum.
The road for the women’s history museum has been nearly as long. Ms. Collins noted on Thursday that she had introduced a bill in 2003, along with Ms. Murkowski and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, to create one. Congress established a commission in 2014 to study the issue, and it also recommended building a full American Museum of Women’s History at a prominent location in Washington, if not on the National Mall.
Even if Congress approved the museums, it would likely take about another decade to open their doors. Lawmakers would still have to allocate funds to supplement private fund-raising to begin building collections and physical structures for both.
Source: The New York Times