WASHINGTON, July 25 (JTA) — The U.S. Senate’s swift approval of legislation strengthening the federal hate crimes statute came as welcome — and somewhat unexpected — news to Jewish and civil rights activists. The Senate approved the bill, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability, without any public debate. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin. Jewish activists have been urging Congress to enact the Hate Crimes Prevention Act since 1997. A similar bill was defeated in the Senate last year amid opposition from conservatives, who argued that it designated special classes of citizens who were already protected under existing state laws against violence. Recent high-profile hate crimes, however, generated new momentum for the measure. “The tragic bias-motivated shootings over the July 4 weekend in Illinois and Indiana, the recent murder of a gay couple in California, and the arson attacks on synagogues on Sacramento in June are only the most recent examples of hate crimes,” said the Anti-Defamation League in a statement, applauding the Senate’s action. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the measure “is not simply feel-good legislation. It will make a real difference to Americans whose safety is continually threatened because of their identity. “This is an important step in healing the wounds hate crimes have inflicted in our communities,” he added. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was approved on a voice vote and folded into a spending bill for the Justice Department and other agencies. The Senate also approved a related bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which expands federal jurisdiction to hate crimes committed after the crossing of state lines. It also would give a boost to state and local law enforcement officials prosecuting hate crimes by allowing them federal aid. The House of Representatives has yet to take action on the bill, although it has 182 co-sponsors and hearings are scheduled early next month. President Clinton said he was “gratified” by the Senate’s action and called on the House “to meet its responsibility in combating violence that is fueled by hate.” “We have some distance to go before the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is the law of the land, but tonight’s action by the Senate is a big step forward in the journey toward greater protection for all Americans,” he added.