A bipartisan effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday failed in the Senate on Wednesday after Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) blocked it from advancing.
Johnson, a conservative who takes hardline stances of federal spending, said that while he supported honoring the day that has come to mark slavery’s end in the U.S., said doing so with a new holiday would “give federal workers a paid day off that the rest of America has to pay for.”
He also estimated that creating another federal holiday would cost the private sector “up to $600 million a year.”
Senate Democrats, joined by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, proposed the federal holiday in June, one of the responses to nationwide protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. House Democrats also won the support of several Republicans for a similar bill offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
Momentum surged for a Juneteenth holiday amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and a broader reckoning with the historic economic injustices suffered by Black Americans. Just before the date this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) declared it a holiday for state workers, and said he would push for legislation making it a holiday throughout the state as of next year. New Your City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has declared it an official holiday in the nation’s largest city, starting next year.
Johnson’s objection appears to have effectively killed for now the federal effort.
Black communities have long have celebrated June 19 as the symbolic end of slavery, commemorating the day in 1865 that slaves in Texas belatedly learned from the Union Army that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.
Cornyn, in a speech Wednesday advocating for the federal holiday, said it presented Congress an opportunity to “demonstrate our nonpartisan support for this act of racial reconciliation in our country.”
Johnson proposed a compromise. He asked the Senate to adopt his amendment to the holiday bill sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) bill that would subtract a day of paid leave from federal workers to compensate for the Juneteenth off-day.
“Why don’t we take away one of their days of paid leave?” Johnson asked.
Markey objected to that idea. “We shouldn’t be penalizing our workers by taking away benefits, especially not in the current environment, and especially not as the price to pay for recognizing a long-overdue federal holiday,” he said, alluding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Ten federal holidays are commemorated in the U.S. annually, with Martin Luther King Jr. Day the most recent addition. But only federal workers benefit from all of them, as private employers are not required to abide by each one. For instance, only 24% of private-sector workers got MLK Day in 2018.
President Ronald Reagan initially opposed a national MLK holiday for the same reason Johnson broached about Juneteenth. Reagan relented in 1983.
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