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Senate breaks stalemate, passes bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn spearheaded the effort with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.

By Emily Caldwell

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, departs the Senate chamber after final votes before the Memorial Day recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, May 28, 2021. Senate Republicans successfully blocked the creation of a commission to study the Jan. 6 insurrection by rioters loyal to former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)(J. Scott Applewhite)

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s bill that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday passed the Senate Tuesday by unanimous consent after Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., announced he was dropping his opposition that had blocked approval.

“Happy that my bill to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday just passed the Senate,” Cornyn tweeted. “It has been a state holiday in Texas for more than 40 years. Now more than ever, we need to learn from our history and continue to form a more perfect union.”

The House must show its support for the legislation before it ends up on the president’s desk. The partner bill, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, currently has 166 cosponsors in the House, with 90 original cosponsors. If both chambers pass the legislation, President Joe Biden would likely sign it into law.

Passage of the bill in both the Senate and the House would mark the end of a long fight for many members of the Texas delegation to recognize the long-celebrated holiday.

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Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, is currently recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia. When Cornyn first introduced the bipartisan legislation to the Senate in 2020, Johnson blocked the bill, saying he would not support another paid holiday for federal employees.

Cornyn told reporters at the Senate on Tuesday that without Johnson’s objection, the bill was likely to pass.

“If he won’t (object) then it’s likely to pass, so that’ll be good,” Cornyn said.

Johnson released a statement Tuesday announcing his intention to let the bill pass.

“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” he said. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”

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Johnson was the sole Republican to object last year when Cornyn and other cosponsors first attempted to pass the legislation by unanimous consent.

Members of the Senate can request to pass a bill via unanimous consent to expedite proceedings, typically on non-controversial bills that are expected to pass with broad support. If any one Senator objects, though, the request is rejected and the bill is effectively killed.

Juneteenth, also known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” recognizes the day enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free and the Civil War had ended.

The news reached them almost two and a half years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, finally freeing some of the last slaves in America. Celebrations have ensued ever since, with a group of African American businessmen and ministers establishing a park in Houston, Emancipation Park, in 1872 to hold the annual commemoration.

Cornyn, along with Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, reintroduced the Senate bill calling for the federal holiday in February. Jackson Lee reintroduced the partner legislation in the House with several GOP cosponsors.

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“The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation,” Cornyn said in a press release Tuesday. “The passage of this bill represents a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality. I thank my colleagues in the Senate for their support, and my fellow Texans who have been celebrating this important holiday for more than a century.”

Senator Ted Cruz made a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday in support of the bill.

“While Juneteenth has been celebrated in states across the country, it carries a special significance in Texas, where Juneteenth celebrations began,” Cruz said. “I’m a proud cosponsor of the Senate resolution designating June 19, 2021, as Juneteenth Independence Day to honor the historical significance this day has in the United States.”

From Texas, celebrations spread to neighboring states, including Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. As Cruz mentioned, Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past—but we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement after the bill passed Tuesday.

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