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Hispanic Museum Bill Revived

Efforts to create a national museum dedicated to the American Latino community got a shot in the arm Thursday when two Hispanic lawmakers reintroduced legislation that would establish a blue-ribbon panel to study the idea.

H.R. 2134, introduced by Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Cinco de Mayo, would create a 23-member commission charged with submitting a report to the president and Congress on how to establish, maintain and fund such a museum. The panel also would be responsible for drawing up a legislative plan of action.

Becerra said he hopes the bill, similar versions of which were introduced in the House and the Senate during the 108th Congress, will benefit from an early, coordinated, bicameral strategy. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the U.S. Senate Republican Conference Task Force on Hispanic Affairs, is expected to reintroduce companion legislation later this month.

“This time around we are getting folks engaged early in the session rather than late in the session when people have other concerns and the calendar is full,” Becerra said. To date, the House bill has 70 co-sponsors.

But while the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus has endorsed the bill, the Republicans’ Congressional Hispanic Conference has yet to give its imprimatur to the measure.

“We are just not there yet,” said Executive Director Mario Lopez, noting that the approval of two-thirds of the conference’s seven full members is required for an endorsement. “Some of our individual members are looking at it, and then we are going to come together and decide.

“No one to my knowledge disagrees in principle that we should look at this issue,” Lopez added, emphasizing the bill’s support from key conference members, such as Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen.

Under the legislation, the panel — to be appointed by the president, Speaker, House Minority Leader, and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders — would address issues such as the availability of collections related to Latino culture, the impact of such a museum on regional Hispanic museums and whether it should be located within the Smithsonian system. The bill also calls for a total of $3.2 million for fiscal 2006 and 2007 to complete the commission’s work.

In addition to other minor changes, the bill no longer addresses whether the museum should be located on or near the National Mall, a point which has in the past caused controversy and delays for similar museums, such as the approved, but yet-to-be built, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“In various conversations [with Senate officials and museum experts] we were told to go with a broader approach and let the commission come up with all those answers,” Becerra said.

He added that the 2004 election of two Hispanic Senators should also improve the legislation’s prospects.

“Last session there were no Latinos in the Senate and all of a sudden there’s two,” Becerra noted, adding that he hoped Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) would take an active role in sponsoring the bill.

“It’s very important you have this sense of continuity between the two houses,” he said.

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