WASHINGTON – The House passed legislation on Wednesday aimed at bulking up the federal efforts efforts to combat domestic terrorism, acting over the opposition of Republicans days after a gunman motivated by white supremacist ideology killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket.
Lawmakers advanced the bipartisan legislation on a nearly party-line vote of 222 to 203 that reflected deep polarization about addressing white supremacy and other racially motivated extremism that is now considered the nation’s greatest internal threat.
The vote came as the Buffalo massacre has shone a spotlight on how racist conspiracy theories such as the one that motivated the shooter have increasingly drifted into Republican politics and right-wing media, where prominent voices, including some members of Congress, have subtly echoed or overtly embraced them. Only one Republican, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, voted for the bill.
The measure would establish three new offices – one each in the FBI, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security – to monitor, investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism. It would require biannual reports assessing the domestic terrorism threat posed by white supremacists, with a particular focus on combating “white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services.”
Yet it would stop short of creating new federal powers to crack down on domestic terrorism; it would not create new criminal offenses or new lists of designated domestic terrorist groups, nor would it give law enforcement additional investigative powers.
From Opinion: The Buffalo Shooting
Commentary from Times Opinion on the massacre at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo.
Proponents said that in a Congress that has long been paralyzed on legislation to combat gun violence, the bill was the best they could to address the root causes of the racist shooting rampage in Buffalo.
“The rise of racially motivated extremism is a serious threat to Americans across the country,” said Representative Brad Schneider, Democrat of Illinois and the lead sponsor of the bill. “We can not stop the likes of Tucker Carlson from spewing hateful, dangerous, replacement theory ideology across the airwaves. Congress hasn’t been able to ban the sale of assault weapons. The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act is what Congress can do to help prevent future Buffalo shootings. ”
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said he would try to bring up the legislation in the Senate next week. But Republicans are expected to block it, citing concerns that it would give the Justice Department too much power. House Republican leaders recommended on Wednesday that their members oppose it.
“This legislation expands the federal bureaucracy, it ignores new and evolving terrorist threats, and it makes it more difficult for law enforcement to recruit and retain qualified candidates,” said Representative Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania.
Originally introduced in 2017, the bill passed the House unanimously in 2020 only to stall in the Senate. It faced headwinds earlier this year after progressive Democrats in Congress, led by Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, said they would oppose the bill, citing concerns from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations that it would increase surveillance of people of color, especially activists.
The ACLU opposed an earlier version of the legislation, stating in a 2019 letter that it would “entrench longstanding problems, and result in the further unjustified and discriminatory surveillance, investigation, and prosecution of people of color and other marginalized communities, including those engaged in First Amendment protected activities. ”
But the measure has picked up momentum since Saturday, when an 18-year-old white gunman opened fire at the Tops supermarket in East Buffalo, authorities said, in a premeditated effort to kill Black people, driven by the belief that white Americans were at risk of being replaced by people of color.
Democrats negotiated internally to amend the bill to assuage the concerns of progressives, narrowing the definition of domestic terrorism and adding a provision to guarantee that individuals could not be put under surveillance for the mere act of taking part in a protest.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas tested before Congress last year that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States came from what they called “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”
In a separate warning last year, the Department of Homeland Security said publicly for the first time that the United States faced a growing threat from “violent domestic extremists” emboldened by the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Senate sponsors of legislation framed the bill last year as a way to respond to the assault on Congress.
“After the violence of the Capitol riots, it’s time to fight domestic terrorism,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, wrote in an op-ed promoting the legislation.
But with the Buffalo killings fresh in the nation’s consciousness, congressional Democrats have pivoted to portray the legislation as a response to the spate of racist shootings across the country. They have cited the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Atlanta shootings that targeted women working at Asian spas, and the 2019 shooting in El Paso, in which authorities say a white gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart, claiming he was carrying out the attack in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
“The longer we wait in getting the resources and tools to the FBI, DOJ and DHS,” Mr. Schneider said, “the more likely we are to have more events like in Buffalo.”