The bill, named after Texas dragging victim James Byrd Jr., won preliminary approval on an 87-60 vote after two hours of debate. After a final vote Tuesday in the House, the measure will go to the Senate where its fate is again in serious doubt.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, led the supporters in the debate.
"I know a lot of you out there want to vote for this bill, but you are concerned about what your voters will think about you if you vote for it," she said. "I want you to think now, can you live with yourself if you vote against this bill?"
For opponents, the question was whether people could live with themselves if they voted for it. Some opponents said they were against the bill because it was divisive.
Supporters of the bill wanted to take it up in the Senate first this session, but that plan was sidetrack last week when Republican Gov. Rick Perry got involved. He suggested that Senate debate should be delayed because two key senators, opponents of the bill, were absent.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, objected to Perry's meddling in Senate action. Later Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican, agreed that the request was out of line because members were frequently absent, but the legislative process continued anyway.
The bill toughens the current "hate crimes" law, which the courts have held is unenforceable. Penalties for crimes based on race, religion, national ancestry and sexual orientation are increased. Some conservatives have objected to the provision on sexual orientation.
The bill is named after James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death near Jasper, Texas in 1998. Three white men were tried on capital murder charges in the case, and two of them were sentenced to death. The third was sentenced to life in prison.
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