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House passes bill targeting domestic terrorism in wake of Buffalo mass shooting

People participate in a vigil on May 17 in Buffalo to honor the 10 people killed in the Tops market shooting. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would create domestic terrorism offices across three federal agencies, spurred by alarm over the rise in incidents of homegrown violent extremism in recent years.

Rep. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) pushed for a vote on the bill, known as the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo. Eleven of the 13 people shot were Black, and authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime and a case of racially motivated violent extremism.

The measure was approved on a 222-to-203 vote. One Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), joined all Democrats present in voting “yes.” The legislation’s future remains uncertain in the Senate, where Democrats have the slimmest of majorities and a unanimous vote on similar legislation was blocked by Republicans two years ago.

A Washington Post analysis last year of data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that domestic terrorism incidents have surged to new highs, predominantly because of a rise in white supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremism on the far right.

In an interview Wednesday, Schneider noted that a previous version of the legislation was approved by unanimous voice vote in the House in September 2020. This time, however, House Republican leaders urged members of their party to vote “no,” arguing that the legislation is unnecessary.

“This bill passed the House on voice vote two years ago — broad support from Republicans and Democrats,” said Schneider, who introduced the measure. “It’s the people who supported it two years ago who have for some reason changed their minds and are not supporting it today. What I’m saying to them is, the longer we wait in getting the resources and tools to the FBI, DOJ and DHS, the more likely we are to have more events like in Buffalo.”

On May 17, President Biden rebuked white supremacy in remarks remembering the victims of the May 14 Buffalo supermarket shooting. (Video: The Washington Post)

Schneider’s legislation would establish domestic terrorism offices within the Justice and Homeland Security departments, as well as the FBI. It also calls for leaders of the FBI, DOJ and DHS to submit a joint report twice a year, with a particular focus on the threat posed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including the “infiltration of Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies and the uniformed services” by members of those groups.

The measure has 207 co-sponsors, including three Republicans — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Don Bacon (Neb.). Yet all three voted against the bill Wednesday night.

In a statement, Fitzpatrick said he disagreed with changes made by Democrats in response to concerns raised by some progressive lawmakers. Those changes included narrowing the definition of domestic terrorism — but Fitzpatrick said he worried the revised bill “would give DOJ too much leeway in picking and choosing what it considers to constitute domestic terrorism.”

“In making these changes, Democratic leadership has pushed the bill away from its original, bipartisan text and instead chose a single-party solution in an effort to appease the Far Left,” he said.

Bacon said Thursday that he had “grave concerns” that the bill would allow federal funds to go toward “monitoring” American civilians, “including our police, servicemembers, and parents.”

“I also heard from literally hundreds of constituents who fear that the Biden Administration would abuse this bill after we learned the Administration was looking at investigating parents who protested at school boards," said Bacon in a statement, repeating a false claim advanced by many Republicans in recent weeks. “Trust was broken. I hate white nationalism and political violence, but this bill became untenable.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that the Senate would vote next week on that chamber’s version of the bill, which Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said would be revised this week to match the House version.

“We hope our Republican colleagues will understand how important this is given what going on in the country,” Schumer said, citing the spread of “replacement theory” and other “bigoted” views in mainstream channels. “We hope they will join us.”

President Biden also has thrown his support behind the measure. In a statement Wednesday night, the White House said the Biden administration “looks forward to continuing to work with the Congress to authorize programs to counter domestic terrorism in a manner appropriate to the existing statutory regimes and constitutional protections.”

In a notice to all House Republicans on Wednesday morning, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) urged members of his party to vote against the legislation. He argued, in part, that the Justice Department had previously “targeted and labeled rightfully concerned parents as domestic terrorists for speaking out at school board meetings” — a false claim that The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has awarded Four Pinocchios.

“By diverting resources that could be used to actually combat domestic terrorism and mandating investigations into the armed services and law enforcement, this bill further weaponizes and emboldens the DOJ to target Americans’ First Amendment rights and go after those who they see as political threats,” Scalise said.

During Wednesday’s at-times-emotional House floor debate, several other Republicans echoed the debunked claim.

“The difference from two years ago and now is that the DOJ has started going after concerned parents that are showing up at school board meetings, labeling themdomestic terrorists,’” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) said. “The difference is that the Department of Homeland Security thinks it’s fitting to have a 'truth and disinformation board,’ like something from an Orwellian novel. This is a different time.”

In response to those accusing Democrats of seeking to target political enemies, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) urged the Republican Party to call out white supremacy and extremism within its own ranks — including describing the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol a domestic terrorist attack.

“The problem is not that the Republican Party is racist; it’s that the Republican Party won’t call out the racists in its midst,” Nadler said. “They won’t call the insurrection on January 6th of last year what it is: an insurrection. They call it ‘legitimate public discourse.’ It is not ‘legitimate public discourse’ when police officers are attacked, when the members of this House are attacked, when the members of the Senate are attacked. That’s domestic terrorism.”

According to The Post’s analysis of the CSIS data last year, right-wing extremists had been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities since 2015, while attacks and plots ascribed to far-left views accounted for 66 incidents leading to 19 deaths during the same period.

More than a quarter of right-wing incidents and just under half of the deaths in those incidents were caused by people who showed support for white supremacy or claimed to belong to groups espousing that ideology, the analysis showed.

Wednesday’s House vote came after Democrats hammered out an agreement to address concerns by some progressives that the newly authorized domestic terrorism offices could target people of color. The bill was modified to include a mandatory civil liberties check on investigations; it would also prevent protesting from being an activity that qualifies for surveillance.

In a statement, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who led the effort to strengthen the bill’s protections for protesters and narrow its definition of domestic terrorism, said she was pleased with the final product. She also accused Republicans of allowing domestic violent extremism to continue unchecked.

“White supremacist violence is not an aberration — it is embedded in American institutions,” Bush said. “Unfortunately, the Republican Party has become the party of unfettered white supremacist violence. We must be swift in condemning it. But in order to truly eradicate it, we must call out white supremacy in all its forms.”

Schneider noted in a statement Monday that law enforcement had warning signs of the Buffalo shooter’s plans long before he took action.

“The shooter had previously threatened his high school,” Schneider said. “He had been sent for a mental health evaluation. He was radicalized by social media and he leveraged it to spread his own hateful beliefs. The government and law enforcement have failed to catch these signs, just as Congress has failed to appropriately combat domestic terrorism. As a result, ten people, most of them Black, are dead at a Buffalo supermarket. We cannot continue making excuses.”

Mike DeBonis and Robert O’Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.