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WASHINGTON — Some House Democrats are frustrated members aren’t moving fast enough to address white supremacy and domestic terrorism — and they’re pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the House of Representatives back to Washington.
Freshman Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) are circulating a letter calling for both the Senate and the House to come back to Washington and cancel their district-work period in the wake of the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, to work on domestic terrorism and gun control measures. The El Paso shootings took place in Escobar’s district.
“We should not wait until the district work period ends on Sept. 9 to take action that will protect the American people,” reads the letter, which was being circulated to House Democrats Tuesday and was obtained exclusively by VICE News.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 48 members of Congress had signed on, and more might join before it’s sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The current list spans the ideological spectrum of House Democrats, from moderates like Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) to progressives, including three members of “The Squad,” Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)
Pelosi told members on Monday that it was unlikely the full House would come back during its August recess to work on legislation.
While Malinowski said he understands Pelosi’s point that the House had already passed some gun control measures, it hasn’t done the same on measures aimed at curbing white supremacy in the U.S.
“The Senate can only act on things that we’ve done,” he said. “But the Senate can’t act on domestic terrorism legislation that we haven’t passed yet — and I’m not prepared to wait for Mitch McConnell to lead on that.”
Current law gives the U.S. government immense resources and powers to target foreign terrorists, but domestic terrorists are another matter entirely. There are no current penalties for being a domestic terrorist, and those who are considered such are charged under hate crimes, conspiracy and gun control rather than terrorism laws.
Under Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has sought to cut resources from domestic terrorism to focus on foreign threats. Fully 85% of DHS grants to counter violent extremism explicitly address Muslims and other minority communities, according to a study from the Brennan Center for Justice, even though white supremacist violence has been on the rise.
Malinowski and the letter’s co-signatories want the House to come back to work on a handful of bills, including the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would beef up the Justice and Homeland Security Department units responsible for addressing the threat of white supremacy-inspired domestic terrorism.
“White supremacists are now overwhelmingly the main perpetrators of terrorist attacks against Americans, and we in Congress and in particular in the House are the only responsible leadership this country has right now,” Malinowski said. “We can’t count on an executive branch that is led by someone who himself echoes the rhetoric of the terrorists and who is at war with the FBI to mobilize the national effort that’s needed.”
The letter comes a day after Pelosi told House Democrats the full chamber was unlikely to come back during August since the House had already passed significant gun-control measures that Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to consider.
A handful of lawmakers spoke out in disagreement with her strategy during the call, sources told VICE News, with members including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) calling for Democrats to return to the House to work on more gun control legislation.
Pelosi strongly suggested on the call that the House wouldn’t come back and that lawmakers should instead focus on blaming the Senate for inaction. In a letter she sent to colleagues later that day, she left open the possibility that the relevant House committees — Judiciary and Homeland Security — would return to work on the issues. A Pelosi spokesman referred VICE News back to that letter when asked about Malinowski’s concerns.
A spokesman for the House Homeland Security Committee told VICE News that its members were still working out a game plan for possible roundtables back in-district during the congressional recess but that nothing had been set in stone — and there are currently no plans to come back to Washington during August. There has been some discussion that the House Judiciary Committee might reconvene sooner, but sources say nothing’s been nailed down.
VICE News reached Malinowski in Israel, where he’d just toured the country’s Holocaust remembrance museum with a congressional delegation. He said there were some modern-day parallels.
“I just walked out of Yad Vashem, and I did not walk out of it with the feeling that we should wait for others to act to deal with a threat that in some ways reminds me of some of the things that museum made me think about,” he said. “It’s beyond question that there are going to be more attacks. Something has been unleashed in our society that is not about mental health and is not just about guns. And it’s going to require the same coordinated, determined national effort to defeat as we rightly mustered after 9/11. And I think it falls to Democrats in the House to lead that effort.”
Here’s the full letter:
Dear Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell,
We are writing to request that urgent attention be given to legislation to address the threats posed by white supremacist terrorism. First, we call on the Senate to reconvene to consider legislation already passed by the House to strengthen the background check system and enhance gun safety. Second, we believe that the relevant House and Senate Committees of jurisdiction should meet during the August recess, and that all other Members and Senators should be prepared to return to Washington as soon as a substantive, meaningful package to combat white supremacist terrorism is ready for consideration. We the undersigned stand ready to return to the Capitol before September 9 to take up this important work.
In the wake of the El Paso shootings, it is clear that terrorists motivated by a common white supremacist ideology are committing deadly attacks against African-American, Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic and other non-white communities in the United States and around the world, and that they pose a clear and present danger to our national security. There is legislation pending in the House and Senate, much of which should have bipartisan support, that would strengthen our government’s ability to confront domestic terrorism, while making it harder for terrorists to purchase guns. We should not wait until the district work period ends on September 9 to take action that will protect the American people.
Pending legislation includes the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would beef up the Justice and Homeland Security Department units responsible for addressing this threat, while improving collection of data. The No HATE Act, the Disarm Hate Act, and the Domestic Terrorism Data Act also seek to address some of the threats posed by violent extremism in the United States. Congress should further consider appropriating supplemental funds to both Departments so that they can meet the threat without reducing other essential counter-terrorism efforts. And we should consider passing a domestic terrorism statute, and new measures to combat the spread of hateful ideologies online.
We must also come together across party lines, as swiftly as possible, to condemn any political leader, movement, or media figure who echoes the beliefs these terrorists have repeatedly expressed, including that immigrants are “invading” the United States or set on “replacing” any of our citizens. This ideology is utterly contrary to America’s founding creed that all men and women are created equal, and to our experience as a nation built by, and benefiting from, the contributions of immigrants from every part of the world.
We should take the threat posed by white supremacist terrorists as seriously as we rightly take the threat posed by terrorists groups based outside the United States. Let us approach that work with the urgency it demands.
Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a signing ceremony for a newly passed budget agreement at the U.S. Capitol July 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)