Senate GOP blocks domestic terror bill, as gun reform talks restart after Buffalo, Texas shootings

Key Points
  • Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a domestic terrorism bill the House passed earlier this month in response to a racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.
  • The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, unlikely to progress any further, would create government offices to report on white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups.
  • Republicans say that there are plenty of laws in existence to prosecute white supremacists and that the current bill would give too much power to the Justice Department.
Family members look on during the funeral service for retired Buffalo Police officer Aaron Salter, Jr, a security guard who was shot dead in the attack by an avowed white supremacist at TOPS supermarket, in Buffalo, New York, May 25, 2022.
Jeffrey T. Barnes | Reuters

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a domestic terrorism bill the House passed earlier this month in response to a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.

The racist rampage by an 18-year-old left 10 people dead in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo. The Democratic-held House responded days later with a measure that would specifically try to reduce racist violence.

But Republicans, who contend that there are plenty of laws to prosecute domestic terrorism and opposed giving more power to federal law enforcement, prevented the bill's progress. It failed to advance in a 47-47 vote, short of the 60 necessary to break a filibuster in the chamber.

The legislation lawmakers considered Thursday, known as the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, would create three offices in the FBI, as well as in the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, to track and examine cases of potential domestic terrorism.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, pleaded with his Republican colleagues on Wednesday to consider the bill in the wake of May's second mass shooting carried out by a teenager: The killing of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

But without the necessary 60 votes to circumvent a GOP filibuster, the domestic terrorism bill has little chance of becoming law.

While Democrats also hope to craft separate legislation that would tighten gun background checks or so-called red flag laws, the bill before the Senate on Thursday would have responded specifically to the threat of racist killings.

A spate of mass shootings in recent years, including in Buffalo, Atlanta and El Paso, Texas, have targeted a specific racial minority group.

The now-doomed legislation would direct the new government offices to document and report on domestic terrorism with a special focus on white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups, and force the Pentagon and federal law enforcement to expel white supremacists from their payrolls.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, who opposed the bill when the chamber passed it on May 18, said the domestic terrorism bill would give the Justice Department and federal law enforcement too much power.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican whose district includes parts of the city of Austin, castigated the effort in a speech from the House floor last week.

"We understand what propping up a domestic terrorism unit in this FBI, in this administration's federal government, what it's all about," Roy said.

This bill "is about empowerment of the federal bureaucracy to target Americans," he continued. "It's questioning that you don't think right. It's the extension of thought crimes that is pervasive in this body that will allow the government to target us for what we believe."

Senators renew gun reform talks

While the chances for the domestic terrorism bill are now all but dashed, a growing number of Senate Republicans appear receptive to conversations about separate gun control policy after 31 Americans were shot to death in mass shootings in less than one month.

Marnie Beale of Arlington, Va., holds a sign at the Senate steps of the U.S. Capitol calling for background checks on gun purchases on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after the latest mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.
Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Schumer has thus far leaned on the negotiating powers of Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and fierce advocate of stricter gun policy, to determine what measures could win the support of 10 Republicans.

While Murphy's odds of success are dim given that a solid majority of Republicans would never consider any additional gun regulation, it is possible a handful — including Sens. Pat Toomey, Susan Collins and John Cornyn — could be open to passing red flag laws or strengthening background checks.

"We're going to extend a hand of partnership to those who have been sitting on the sidelines, to those who have chosen to side with the gun lobby. And we're going to offer them a seat at the table," Murphy said outside the Capitol.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Toomey and Collins and Democrats Murphy and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, met Thursday to kick off informal talks on gun-safety legislation. The Senate wrapped up its work for the week Thursday, but the lawmakers plan to hold discussions over Memorial Day weekend.

NBC News reported that that senators will now break off into smaller groups, or pairings, to flesh out the details of specific proposals. One such coupling appears to be between Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who teamed up on a bill 10 years ago to bolster background checks and close certain firearm purchase loopholes.

That bill won majority support in the Senate in 2013, but lacked the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

"I still strongly believe that the idea that Joe Manchin and I had that requiring background checks on all commercial sales of firearms is a completely reasonable policy that does not infringe on Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," Toomey told CNN on Wednesday. "There's a group of us that's going to get together, and we're going to discuss this and see if we might be able to get to 60."

"There's also been some discussion about red flag legislation," Toomey added, referring to laws that allow family members to ask a court to order the temporary removal of guns from a person suspected of posing a danger to themselves or others.

"Both of those are discussions that are effectively underway," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Thursday that he encouraged Cornyn to attempt to find common ground with Democrats on gun regulations.

"I've encouraged him to talk to Senator Sinema and Senator Murphy and others who are interested in trying to get an outcome," McConnell said. "It's directly related to the problem. So I am hopeful that we can come up with a bipartisan solution that's directly related to the facts of this awful massacre."

Cornyn, who spoke from the Senate floor Thursday morning, said he could be open to considering specific measures.

Depending on the results of the Uvalde police investigation, "I'm eager to see whether there are any gaps that might have done something to make this attack less likely. That might have actually even prevented this attack from taking place," he said.

Sen. Chris Murphy pleads for something to be done about these shootings
Sen. Chris Murphy pleads for something to be done about these shootings