(Updates with plans for Senate vote in 4th paragraph.)
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Three federal agencies would be tasked with rooting out domestic terrorism threats within the government and across the US under a bill slated for a House vote Wednesday.
The measure (H.R. 350) would authorize domestic terrorism offices within the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the FBI. It would also require officials to assess White supremacist and neo-Nazi threats in the US and inside agencies.
The May 14 mass shooting of mostly Black victims at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store prompted renewed urgency for passing the bill after lawmakers scrapped plans for a floor vote last month.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), sponsor of a similar bill (S. 963), said Wednesday that he will introduce an updated version to match the House measure. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would file cloture on the bill next week, teeing it up for a floor vote.
The Senate legislation may face challenges if Republicans in that chamber take up their House colleagues’ complaints that the bill would allow federal officials to target everyday people as potential threats for speaking out about issues such as Covid-19 and school policies.
House bill sponsor Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) acknowledged that Republicans’ complaints about potential federal overreach have weighed heavily in the House but said Democrats would try to return focus to the bill’s purpose does during floor debate.
“We’ll stay focused on the substance of the bill and the need this legislation is addressing,” he said in an interview. “I’ll continue to stay focused on keeping all communities safe.”
The House bill has also created friction on the left, with some groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, lauding it as a way to counter domestic terrorism without profiling racial and religious minorities. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and others argued last month that agencies would inevitably use new authorities to target marginalized communities.
Bill supporters aimed to address those concerns this week through an amendment that tweaked the definition of domestic terrorism and added a section on First Amendment protections. CAIR, Defending Rights & Dissent, and other groups on Monday said they appreciated the changes and would no longer push lawmakers to vote no.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a lead critic of the earlier version of the bill, said she now plans to vote yes and credits a collaborative process between House leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The bill’s rocky path to passage highlights how Congress has struggled to take action on domestic terrorism despite increased attention on the problem after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, the Texas synagogue hostage-taking this year, the Buffalo shooting, and other incidents. Schneider’s bill is relatively narrow, avoiding contentious questions about whether DOJ should have expanded authorities to prosecute domestic terrorism.
While the bill may not have a “dramatic effect” on the agencies’ day-to-day domestic counterterrorism work, it “may have the effect of raising attention to the issue, and provide a mechanism for Congress to conduct additional oversight,” said former national security official Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at the research group Center for a New American Security.
DOJ, DHS, and the FBI already have teams that investigate domestic terrorism. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the three agencies would need more than 100 new analysts, agents, lawyers, and support staff to address the bill’s requirements.
With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org