By ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Bipartisan efforts that would have established a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum on the National Mall failed Thursday evening at the hands of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who argued that such museums would only “further divide” an already fractured America.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., asked the Senate to unanimously pass a bill, already approved by the House, which would have established the National Museum of the American Latino.
“I am not white or Black or Native American, I am Latino,” Menendez said. “I am 1 in 5 Americans today. My grandchildren are 1 in 4 school children today. When we walk to the National Mall or when … anyone walks to the National Mall, no one is inspired by the story of Latinos and Latinas in this country because that story is not being told.”
But Lee rose to oppose the bill, calling museums dedicated to Latinos or women “separate but equal museums for hyphenated identity groups.”
“At the end of such a fraying and fracturing year, Congress should not splinter one of the national institutional cornerstones of our distinct national identity,” Lee said. “[Latino] stories are our stories and they are stories that emphatically should be told by the Smithsonian Institution at the Museum of American History. Period. No hyphen.”
Menendez was supported in his effort by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“Generations of Latino Americans have shaped our country as it is today, but as I suggested a moment ago, many Americans simply aren’t aware of the vast contributions made by these men and women who have come before us, and one critical way we can right this wrong is by providing a home for their stories in the nation’s capital,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn’s Texas colleague, GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father was born and raised in Cuba, has also been on the record supporting the establishment of a Latino museum.
Menendez responded to Lee by pointing to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, established in 2003, and the National Museum of the American Indian, established in 1989.
“I don’t know if these arguments were made against the Native Americans; I don’t know if these arguments were made against African Americans; I don’t see them as being separate and apart,” Menendez said. “I see them as being a part of the collective mosaic that is coming together under the Smithsonian.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tried to get her bill establishing a Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum passed right after Lee voted down the National Latino History Museum. Lee also opposed her bill, though he didn’t give a speech explaining his objection like he did with the Latino museum.
“I can think of no better way to tell the story of American women, to inspire those young girls and young boys who come to Washington to tour all the wonderful museums that are part of the Smithsonian, than to create a museum of American women’s history so that they can better understand the contributions of American women to the development of our nation and its proud history,” Collins said.
Lee, 49, has served in the Senate since 2011 and was reelected with 68% of the vote in 2016.
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.