WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday approved an expansion of federal "hate crime" laws -- an effort that former Republican President George W. Bush had opposed.
On a vote of 249-175, the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill backed by the new Democratic White House to broaden such laws by classifying as "hate crimes" those attacks based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability.
The current law, enacted four decades ago, limits federal jurisdiction over hate crimes to assaults based on race, color, religion or national origin.
The bill would lift a requirement that a victim had to be attacked while engaged in a federally protected activity, like attending school, for it to be a federal hate crime.
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer urged passage of the Federal Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
"Hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and identity or disability not only injure individual victims, but also terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric," Hoyer said.
Bush had helped stop such a bill in the last Congress, arguing existing state and federal laws were adequate. But President Barack Obama asked Congress to send it to him to sign into law.
"I urge members on both sides of the aisle to act on this important civil rights issue by passing this legislation to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance," Obama said in a statement before the vote.
Conviction of a hate crime carries stepped up punishment, above and beyond that meted out for the attack. The bill would allow the federal government to help state and local authorities investigate hate crimes.
Representative Lamar Smith, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, helped lead the charge against the bill, arguing it was misdirected and discriminatory.
"All violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted," Smith said. "Unfortunately, this bill undermines one of the most basic principles of our criminal justice system -- 'equal justice for all.'"
"Justice will now depend on the race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other protected status of the victim," Smith said. "It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime."
Earlier this year, Congress passed two other major bills derailed during the Bush administration.
One, vetoed by Bush, would have expanded a federal health insurance program for children. The other, blocked by Bush's fellow Republicans in the Senate, would have reversed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to make it easier to sue for discrimination in the workplace.
With Democrats having won the White House and expanded their control of Congress in the 2008 election, both measures were among the party's top 2009 legislative priorities. And they became among the first bills Obama signed into law.
(Editing by Eric Beech)