Saying the country is too divided, Sen. Mike Lee blocked proposals to establish the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum on Thursday.
The bipartisan proposals sought to create the two museums under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. Lee said the creation of separate museums would lead to a further division in America, and the two groups would better be represented in the already existing Museum of American History.
“There is no us and them. There’s only us. My objection to the creation of a new series of museums based on group identity is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities. It is a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion,” said Lee.
“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation within an array of separate but equal museums of hyphenated identity groups,” he added.
In objecting, Lee said that establishing separate museums based on race or gender would exacerbate “cultural and identity balkanization” that has “turned college campuses into grievance pageants.”
“The Smithsonian Institution should not have an exclusive museum of American Latino history or a museum of women’s history or a museum of American men’s history or Mormon history or Catholic history. American history is an inclusive story that should unite us,” said Lee.
A spokesperson for Sen. Mitt Romney’s office told The Salt Lake Tribune he supported the creation of the two museums.
Backers of the two bills had hoped to win approval on a voice vote, but Lee took advantage of Senate rules and stopped them in their tracks. Both bills passed the House during the summer.
The bills would authorize the process for creating the museums, which would be paid for by a split of public and private funds.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the sponsor of the legislation to create the Latino museum, was furious at Lee’s decision.
“This has been a 20-plus year journey to try and make this museum possible, and one Republican colleague stands in the way,” said Menendez. “It’s pretty outrageous.”
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she was disappointed by Lee’s behavior.
“I think this is a sad moment. Surely in a year where we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, this is the moment to finally pass the legislation,” she said. “I regret that will not occur this evening, but we will not give up the fight.”
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tore into Lee on Twitter for wasting time on the issue instead of working toward a COVID relief package.
“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,” she tweeted.
Friends of the American Latino Museum, the nonprofit organization advocating for the creation of the museum, said in a statement on Friday that it would not be deterred by Lee’s action.
“We are incredibly disappointed with Senator Mike Lee’s insultingly dismissive, condescending and misguided decision to block our bill to establish a National Museum of the American Latino to commemorate and celebrate over 500 years of American Latino history and contributions to the American story.”
The group said it would continue to work with members of Congress to revive the proposal before Congress adjourns next week.