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Lawmakers face pressure to increase security funding for houses of worship after the recent Texas synagogue hostage-taking, but a legislative path remains to be seen.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program provides money to synagogues, churches, and other organizations to bolster on-site protections against terrorist attacks, hate crimes, and other violence.
Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week touted the $180 million in grants his agency distributed last year and called on Congress to provide a “significant increase” in funds to meet demand.
The focus on the security grant program comes after four hostages escaped unharmed after a half-day standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 15. The Department of Homeland Security said the temple previously received funding under the grant program, which helps nonprofits invest in shatterproof glass, cameras, security guards, and other facility improvements.
Advocates who want the pool of money to be doubled are pressing lawmakers in light of the Texas attack. Members on both sides of the aisle have signaled support for increased funding. But fraught annual budget negotiations and the collapse of Democrats’ sweeping social spending and tax bill (H.R. 5376) may complicate the effort.
Annual budget proposals Democrats released last year would keep Nonprofit Security Grant Program funding flat at $180 million in fiscal 2022. In a statement to Bloomberg Government, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who chairs the panel on homeland security appropriations, highlighted her successful bids to increase funding in recent years—tripling it from the fiscal 2018 level of $60 million.
She didn’t answer whether she was open to increasing the funding further but said “we will continue to provide strong support for the program.”
Her Republican counterpart, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), said he supports boosting funding to protect houses of worship. But he’s concerned strained annual budget talks for fiscal 2022 could result in a full-year continuing resolution with flat funding across the board.
“An anomaly would certainly be a way to look at that,” he said in an interview, describing a budget mechanism for lawmakers to tack on security grant funding to a continuing resolution if needed. “Of course, I’m not willing yet to give up or concede that we’re going to have a yearlong CR.”
The office of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who leads the Senate appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for Orthodox Union, a group that helped spearhead the grant program in 2005, said he’s optimistic lawmakers will be able to reach a deal on an omnibus spending bill after current stopgap funding expires, and use it to address the grant program.
“We’re talking with them about whether that could be a vehicle for plussing it up,” he said about talks with lawmakers.
Biden administration officials promoted the grant program Tuesday during a virtual meeting with some 1,500 synagogue leaders, Diament said.
Stalled Agenda Bill
A separate proposal to add money to the grant program appears doomed in the Senate. House Democrats last year approved a plan to funnel an additional $100 million, but the infusion is part of the party’s broader tax and social spending bill. That legislation is on life support after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he wouldn’t support the House bill.
Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) highlighted the missed opportunity in a statement about the Texas hostage situation.
“That said, it is my fervent hope that—in the wake of this attack—there is renewed attention to the security needs of at-risk houses of worship,” he said in a statement.
The hostage situation has also prompted scrutiny of DHS’s screening and vetting procedures for international travelers, as the now-deceased hostage taker—identified by the FBI as British citizen Malik Faisal Akram—entered the U.S. without raising red flags. British officials placed him on a watch list in 2020 but later concluded he no longer posed a threat, according to the BBC.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote to Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, saying “this all could have been averted if your Departments had adequately vetted his visa application and stopped him at the airport.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. officials checked Akram against government databases and didn’t turn up any concerning information. The administration is reviewing the matter.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org