WASHINGTON - A bill that would add Juneteenth as a federal holiday is now heading to President Joe Biden's desk for signature after the House approved the measure Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 415-14. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent Tuesday night.
This is the first time in nearly 40 years there will be a new federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983. There will now be 12 federal holidays.
Many Americans have recognized Juneteenth for decades; it is celebrated on June 19 every year.
It marks June 19, 1865, when the Union Army finally brought word to Galveston, Texas that slavery had been outlawed. Then-president Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.
It has been a state holiday in Texas for 40 years, and at this time 49 states and the District of Columbia recognize it in some way on the state level. South Dakota is the only state that currently does not recognize it as a holiday.
The measure was introduced last summer, but Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson's vocal objections about the cost to taxpayers to pay federal workers for the day off stopped it from passing by unanimous consent. Last year, Johnson and others tried to negotiate swapping Juneteenth for Columbus Day so there would not be another federal holiday added. Those efforts did not go far.
This year, the bill gained more Republican support and Johnson dropped his objections.
“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” the Republican senator said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”
Once Johnson dropped his objections, the measure passed unanimously in the Senate, sending it to the House for passage Wednesday.
By making it a federal holiday, the bill only guarantees federal workers will get Juneteenth off, there is no requirement that private businesses give employees the day off.