lee-latino-museum Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) voted against museums honoring the achievements of Latinos and women.
Image via Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Lee was the sole senator to object to two national museums to commemorate women and Latinos.

It took just one senator in Congress to stop–for now–the planning and early stages of building national museums focused on the history of women and Latinos in the United States. 

The idea of founding a museum to commemorate and celebrate Latinos’ achievements in the United States is not new. In 1994, a 15-member task force appointed by the Smithsonian Institution, which operates 19 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo, concluded that the famed institution has consistently ignored Latino contributions to American art, culture, and science.

The womens’ museum would display the historic experiences and contributions of women to the United States. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has been a champion of creating a national women’s museum since 1998. But it wasn’t until 2014 that approving the early stages of building such a museum gained any traction, and the House didn’t pass legislation to create the museum until February 2020.

For the first time in years, Congress was very close to approving the two museums. The House passed a bipartisan bill to build them, and the next step was approval in the Senate. 

But on Thursday night, just one Republican senator stopped approval for the long awaited museums. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah blocked the bill, saying a museum based on group identity would further divide the country. 

“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,” Lee said in discussion. “It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”

After Lee’s objection, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted the disappointment of not passing the bill. “I regret that that will not occur this evening, but we will not give up the fight,” Collins said.  

Sen. Bob Mendez (D-NJ) highlighted the high hopes of Latino viewers across the country many of whom tuned in to watch on TV and expected the bill to pass easily. 

“Sixty million Latinos in this country are watching tonight because this is a much-expected moment. Univision, Telemundo, affiliates across the country, national organizations and others have been waiting for this moment — a moment that everybody in the Congress of the United States agrees to, except for one colleague,” he said.

Proponents of the potential Latino museum on the National Mall argue the museum would showcase the contributions of 60 million Americans. They also said that the museum would be symbolically significant in the nation’s capital. 

“Let us… officially acknowledge that the success of this country could not have been accomplished without the achievements of Hispanic Americans,” Menéndez said during an earlier panel discussion on the museum.

Having the National Latino Museum in the National Mall would recognize the second largest community of color in the country, or about 60 million Latinos representing about 18.5% of the US population.

Lawmakers were trying to pass the bill through unanimous consent, which is typically used for measures that are considered noncontroversial. It often speeds up the normal legislative process, but in this case, Lee’s refusal to approve the bill was enough to block it entirely. 

Lee is often at odds with even his Republican colleagues; the Utah native has strong liberarian leanings and is not known for compromise.