The measure's future beyond the House is unclear as Republicans decry bureaucracy and federal overreach.
Several new federal offices would target domestic terrorism under a bill the House approved on Wednesday, while a new task force would probe internally in the government to root out extremism.
The 2022 Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350) would task three agencies with monitoring, investigating and prosecuting such incidents. Democrats have pushed for years to pass similar legislation, but renewed their efforts with urgency after a white teenager murdered 10 individuals at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, as part of a racist plot to target Black shoppers.
While the measure originally had more bipartisan support, just one Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., voted for it. Three Republicans who served as original cosponsors on the bill voted against the measure, saying it had become too divisive and Democrats altered it significantly from its original language.
The Homeland Security Department would create a Domestic Terrorism Unit within its Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The Justice Department would launch a Domestic Terrorism Office while the FBI would stand up a domestic terrorism section with its Counterterrorism Division. All three agencies would review the related trainings and resources they provide to federal partners, as well as state and local governments, and train prosecutors for domestic terrorism cases.
An interagency task force, headed by the Defense Department, would be asked to “analyze and combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration” in both the uniformed services and federal law enforcement. DHS launched an internal review in 2021 that identified just five employees who engaged in domestic violent extremism in recent years, though the department said the lack of a set definition for what qualifies or a system to track the incidents made a comprehensive tally impossible.
Republicans criticized the bill for giving federal agencies too much power, saying it would lead to targeting Americans for their political beliefs.
The bill “adds bureaucracy and adds red tape to existing law enforcement resources while completely ignoring new and evolving terrorist threats,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas.
Democrats countered the measure does not create any new criminal offenses, investigative powers or penalties, but simply provides additional resources to allow agencies to investigate violations of existing laws.
“Passing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act sends a message that we stand with federal law enforcement, we stand with American communities, and we stand against domestic terrorism,” said Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., who wrote the bill. “The American people deserve to feel secure in their schools, in their super markets, in their churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.”
The Biden administration last year rolled out its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which set aside funds for DHS and Justice to hire attorneys, officers and agents to confront domestic terrorism. It sought to boost interagency collaboration, label more domestic groups as terrorist organizations, better screen federal hires to root extremists out of government. It also stood up the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships within DHS last year to help local jurisdictions prevent radicalization and acts of domestic terrorism.
The White House said it hoped to implement the new bill to boost efforts to combat domestic terrorism while maintaining constitutional protections. It noted that agencies are in the midst of implementing the president's national strategy, but highlighted that the FBI has stressed the growing danger of domestic terrorism. The White House also pledged to work with Congress to ensure the interagency task force examined “all relevant federal agencies” when conducting its probe to “ensure that federal employees are deserving of their positions of trust.”
Several progressive House members had originally opposed the legislation, causing House leadership to delay a vote on the bill several weeks ago. The lawmakers said language tweaks to the legislation assuaged their concerns about law enforcement violating civil rights or targeting certain groups.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has said he would introduce companion legislation. It faces a steep climb, however, as it would require at least 10 Republican votes to ensure passage.