A lone Republican senator has blocked a congressional vote to create two new Smithsonian museums dedicated to American women and Latinos.
Casting his dissenting vote, Senator Mike Lee said they would “further divide an already divided nation”.
The legislation received unanimous bipartisan support by the remainder of the 100-member Senate.
Founded 170 years ago, the Washington-based Smithsonian features 19 museums.
It boasts of being the “world’s largest museum, education and research complex,” with the newest Smithsonian museum – the Museum of African American History and Culture – added in 2016.
A museum for Latino history has been being considered for at least 20 years, after a government report found in the early 1990s that the Smithsonian “displays a pattern of wilful neglect” toward Latinos and “almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations”.
A measure to create a women history’s museum was introduced in the early 2000s.
In his speech on the Senate floor on Thursday night, Mr Lee – a Utah senator who leans libertarian – condemned politics based on identity – a topic that many conservative Americans have voiced objections to in recent years.
“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,” he said. “It is a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”
Because the authors of the two museum bills had sought a unanimous vote of all 100 senators, each measure was struck down in its entirety by Mr Lee’s objection. Measures supporting the Latino museum and women’s museum had already been passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of Congress.
Mr Lee went on to say: “The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity; it weaponises diversity.
“I understand what my colleagues are trying to do and why. I respect what they’re trying to do. I even share their interests in ensuring that these stories are told. But 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.”
In a following debate, Mr Lee argued that Native Americans and black Americans had their histories “virtually erased,” which was why Smithsonian institutions exist for them.
“We have been systematically excluded,” retorted New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the author of the Latino museum bill.
“Believe me, we have been,” he added, accusing Mr Lee of standing “in the way of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fulfilled and recognised”.
Latina Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal Democrat from New York, was among those criticising Mr Lee. She noted that the debate over these two bills came as coronavirus stimulus relief bills continued to stall in the Senate.
No movement on COVID in the Senate but good to know Utah Sen. Mike Lee is spending his time today giving speeches about why Latinos shouldn’t have a national history museum and oh, while we’re at it, why there shouldn’t be a women’s history museum either https://t.co/nJE4QnM7nl
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 11, 2020
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter
Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, who sponsored the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act, joined in the criticism of Mr Lee, calling it a “sad moment” and adding that “it seems wrong” for a single senator to block such popular measures.
“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,” she said, referring to the centennial of women’s right to vote in the US.
Museum advocates say Mr Lee’s objection is just one of many roadblocks, and that other legislative avenues still exist to having the measures pass.
Senators could still attempt to attach the museum measures to the year’s highly important budget bill, or otherwise reintroduce the measures when the new Congress convenes in January.
Even if the votes had passed, it would still be years before building would begin, as Congress would also need to vote again to allocate funds to the projects.
Last week, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G Bunch III released a statement praising the two bills.
“Creating new museums is challenging, but, with appropriate funding, the Smithsonian has the skill and expertise to do it right,” he said. “We can, and have, created museums that meet the needs of the nation and showcase the US to the world.”