Republican Sen. Mike Lee (UT) on Thursday blocked bipartisan legislation to establish a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution, declaring amid calls to recognize the history of both demographics, that the nation does not need “separate but equal museums.”
“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,” Lee said.
The comments follow decades-long efforts to establish a National Museum of the American Latino in legislation that had passed the House by voice vote in July. The Senate Rules Committee also unanimously approved the legislation, which was co-sponsored by GOP Sen. John Cornyn (TX).
“At this moment in the history of our diverse nation, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together and not further apart,” the Utah lawmaker added.
While Lee appeared to suggest that a museum dedicated to the history of one group would somehow alienate others, saying the nation “should not have an exclusive museum” dedicated to the contributions or legacy of any one group, an underlying theme for him seemed to be that it didn’t rise to the occasion of being worth American tax dollars.
“There is a brand that comes along with the Smithsonian Institution and a lot of money that’s taken from the American people in the form of tax revenue,” Lee said. “And so as a result of that, the Smithsonian Institution has a unique role.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) fired back at Lee for attempting to block the recognition of Latino Americans in the patchwork of American history.
“One Republican colleague from Utah stands in the way of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fulfilled and being recognized,” said Menendez, who has long advocated for the museum.
“I see them as part of the collective history mosaic that is coming together under the Smithsonian,” Menendez said.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins (ME) questioned whether Lee had made similar efforts to block the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 and decried Lee’s effort to block legislation to establish the American Women’s History Museum, citing the centennial of women’s suffrage. The House had voted in February to pass legislation to create a women’s history museum.
“Surely in a year where we’re 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,” Collins said, adding that she would “not give up the fight.”