The bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday brought together Democrats and Republicans as few recent efforts have. It passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate, and by a margin of 415-14 in the House.
But some of the key opponents of the measure were two Wisconsin legislators who have staked out positions on the right wing of the Republican Party.
In the House, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, was one of the 14 GOP members to vote against the recognition. In the Senate, the bill was only able to progress after U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who had been holding it up, grudgingly dropped his opposition this week.
Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States following the Civil War. It’s observed on June 19 because on that day in 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned of the end of the war, and of enslavement. The holiday has a long tradition in Black communities, and in recent years events and observances have spread across the country, often including multiracial celebrations. In Wausau — the largest city in Tiffany’s mostly rural, Northwoods district — organizers on Saturday are hosting the city’s first-ever public Juneteenth celebration.
Tiffany declined an interview request. In a statement, he said the measure to recognize the holiday “fuel(ed) separatism by creating a race-based ‘Independence Day'” and called the effort politicized. Tiffany was the only member of Wisconsin’s delegation from either party to vote against the bill.
Johnson opposed the same measure last year, and prevented the Senate from taking up a bipartisan measure to recognize the day. At the time, he said his opposition was based on concerns about the cost of granting federal employees an additional paid day off. He proposed eliminating the Columbus Day holiday in exchange for a Juneteenth observation.
In a statement on Tuesday, Johnson reiterated his worries about the cost of the proposal and said “it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery.” But he also said he had concluded that “there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” and that he was dropping his objection. The measure passed hours later.
Johnson and Tiffany are both among the most right-wing members of Congress; a political science ranking system finds Tiffany more conservative than 87 percent of the House and Johnson more conservative than 86 percent of the Senate. They were also allies in aiding former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the result of the November presidential election. Tiffany joined a Texas lawsuit that would have thrown out Wisconsin’s votes; Johnson spent the months after the election promoting false claims about voting fraud.
Nor is it the first time Tiffany has voted with the minority on broadly bipartisan bills intended to promote racial justice. In May, he voted against the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a response to anti-Asian hate crimes that passed the House 364-62. In 2020, he voted against a bill the remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, a bill that passed 305-113.
President Joe Biden has announced plans to sign the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.