clock menu more-arrow no yes

Democrats barely passed a bill to increase security at the US Capitol

Republicans and some progressive Democrats opposed the January 6-inspired measure.

CAPITOL POLICE
Capitol Police officers ride past the US Capitol on May 12, 2001.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

A $1.9 billion emergency funding bill to boost security at the US Capitol in the wake of the January 6 insurrection barely passed the House on Thursday. The measure, which would also provide additional personal security for lawmakers facing an intensifying wave of threats and harassment in Washington and their home districts, received no Republican support, and exposed fissures within the Democratic Party over the issue of increasing funding for any police force.

The bill ultimately passed on Thursday, following last-minute negotiations led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with 213 votes for the bill and 212 against.

Every voting Republican voted no on the bill, claiming that it cost too much money and that there was no guarantee the funding would be properly spent enhancing security. Those votes followed recent statements from Republicans that downplayed or outright fabricated facts about the violence that transpired at the Capitol on January 6.

More strikingly, Democrats were not unified among themselves. Left-wing members of the House, including the members of the so-called Squad, broke from the party out of what could be described as a defund-the-police rationale.

Democratic Reps. Cori Bush (MO), Ilhan Omar (MN), and Ayanna Pressley (MA) voted against the legislation; Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Jamaal Bowman (NY), and Rashida Tlaib (MI), voted present, which means they officially took no position.

The defection is a sign of fissures within the party over how to think about police reform and the use of force, a policy domain that has been a source of intense national debate since the protests that swept the nation last year following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

It also appears to be a carefully aimed warning shot by the Squad, illustrating that, when they’re unified, they have the ability to torpedo Democratic legislation. The Democratic Party relies on a narrow majority in the House to pass any one of its bills.

Bush, Omar, and Pressley released a joint statement, saying a package that “pours $1.9 billion into increased police surveillance and force without addressing the underlying threats of organized and violent white supremacy, radicalization, and disinformation that led to this attack will not prevent it from happening again.”

Bowman told reporters he voted present because “there are some things about the bill that I support, like making sure our custodial staff and our cleaners have the resources they need to respond and deal with this trauma, but there are other parts of it that I don’t support, like adding more funding to police budgets.”

While Democrats have been unified on most major legislation during the opening months of the Biden administration, that unity may not hold as more complicated and polarizing policy issues come up for debate, throwing some Democratic bills into jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Republicans’ unified opposition to a nominally pro-law enforcement bill may signal — once again — a challenge to President Joe Biden’s vision of being able to unify Congress around shared values.

January 6 and its aftermath raised serious security questions

The violence and security breaches by pro-Trump rioters seeking to shut down the certification of the 2020 election results on January 6 have raised big questions about what security should look like at the US Capitol going forward.

Capitol Police were unprepared for and slow to react to thousands of demonstrators — some of whom were armed — who stormed the Capitol, destroyed property, chanted death threats, searched the halls for lawmakers, and shut down the certification of the election results. Some 140 officers were injured and several people died. Experts say things could’ve gone far worse, had lawmakers not narrowly avoided the mob in a few close encounters.

The crisis in turn has precipitated massive scrutiny of the Capitol Police and created a morale problem in its ranks, which appears to have caused an uptick in resignations and retirements among rank-and-file officers.

In spite of this, Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate have downplayed the threat that Capitol Police faced on January 6. This has served to both exonerate supporters of former President Donald Trump for their role in the violence on that day, and also underpinned arguments for maintaining the security status quo at the Capitol.

At a hearing last week, one House Republican from Georgia said that some of the people who broke into the Capitol on January 6 were behaving as if on “a normal tourist visit” to Washington. Another likened the rioters to a “mob of misfits.” And appearing on a Fox News program on Wednesday, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson called the incursion a “peaceful protest.”

A majority of Republicans also opposed the formation of an independent commission tasked with investigating the events of the day. While 35 House Republicans broke ranks with their party on Wednesday to support the investigation, top Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, opposed such an inquiry.

This disregard for the perils that Congress members faced on January 6 comes as threats and harassment against lawmakers have been increasing. Members of Congress report that they’re increasingly being confronted in public, receiving threats to their families, and having private details of their lives posted online. Compared to last year, threats against federal lawmakers have more than doubled so far this year.

The nearly $2 billion bill passed Thursday is meant to address a wide variety of issues, including: back pay for overtime hours, hazard pay, and retention bonuses; better equipment and training; a “new quick-reaction team that would essentially create a standing force of the D.C. National Guard,” according to Politico; fortifying the Capitol complex with movable fencing, surveillance equipment, and reinforced windows and doors; and extra security for lawmakers who have been threatened and typically are not eligible for publicly funded security.

The Squad is averse to increased police funding without reform

Without any Republican support, Democrats were able to pass the spending package, but just barely. Pelosi and other top Dems had to scramble to try to assuage the Squad’s concerns about the bill, which included, according to Politico, considerations about allocating more money to a Capitol Police force in which some officers indirectly contributed to the day’s violence through lax enforcement.

“I am tired of the fact that any time where there is a failure in our system of policing, the first response is for us to give them more money, rather than investigate the failings and hold those responsible accountable,” Omar, who voted against the bill, told the Intercept. “I’ll continue to fight for structural change that actually centers people’s safety and humanity. That applies to us here in the Capitol, as well as my constituents in Minneapolis.”

The joint statement from Omar, Bush, and Pressley expressed a broader set of concerns with the bill. Here’s a key passage:

Increasing law enforcement funds does not inherently protect or safeguard the Capitol Hill or surrounding D.C. community. In fact, this bill is being passed before we have any real investigation into the events of January 6th and the failures involved because Republicans have steadfastly obstructed the creation of a January 6th commission.

The bill also does far too little to address the unspeakable trauma of the countless officers, staff, and support workers who were on site that day – dedicating fifty times more money to the creation of a ‘quick reaction force’ than it does to counseling. We cannot support this increased funding while many of our communities continue to face police brutality while marching in the streets, and while questions about the disparate response between insurrectionists and those protesting in defense of Black lives go unanswered.

Ultimately, Pelosi’s Democratic caucus emerged with the bill they wanted because three members of the Squad decided to vote “present” rather than oppose it.

But the entire episode showed the progressive wing of House Democrats flexing its muscle as a voting bloc, and likely foreshadows future legislative battles to come, whether on issues tied to criminal justice or other major points of policy disagreement.

Pelosi’s 11th-hour negotiations to save the bill also suggest that, with a narrow majority in the House, Democratic Party leadership cannot afford to alienate its most progressive members on any must-pass legislation — potentially offering those farther-left members more leverage on their own priorities.

And while Biden and Democratic House leadership seem to have been able to satisfy the Squad on Biden’s coronavirus relief bill and the administration’s opening gambit on a massive infrastructure bill, some rifts between the establishment and the Squad may have further-reaching consequences. For example, in light of Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza, some members of the Squad introduced an unprecedented resolution to block Biden’s $735 million arms sale to Israel this week; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a similar proposal in the Senate.

While these resolutions are unlikely to get traction, they can embolden others in the party to break from Biden — as some briefly seemed to do on the weapons sale — and serve as symbols of how the small left-wing bloc in Congress could become a thorn in the side of party leadership in the coming months and years.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.