The Senate on Tuesday rejected a bipartisan effort to significantly scale back Pentagon transfers of surplus military gear to civilian law enforcement in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.
In a 51-49 vote, the Senate turned back an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to limit the Defense Department's surplus equipment program. Democrats Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) offered the amendment.
Though a majority of the Senate voted to restrict the program, only a handful of Republicans broke with their party to support the measure. Sixty votes were needed to adopt the amendment.
The Senate is next slated to vote on an alternative proposal offered by Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would impose softer restrictions on equipment transfer.
The Pentagon's program to shift its surplus equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies, known as the 1033 program, has come under fresh criticism for militarizing local police amid crackdowns of protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Amid the unrest, Schatz tweeted on May 31 that he would attempt to discontinue the transfer of military weapons to local police in the defense policy bill.
"There's just no reason that local police departments should be equipped as though they're about to take Raqqa," Schatz told POLITICO in an interview ahead of the vote, referring to a town in Syria.
"They are literally getting the stuff from the DoD from Afghanistan and Iraq, so it's not a rhetorical flourish to say that they're equipped as though they're going to take a foreign city. They literally are — and without the training," Schatz added. "This does nothing to keep our communities safer and it obviously causes distress and distrust between police departments and communities."
The amendment would have barred the transfer of certain offensive equipment to law enforcement agencies, including tear gas, grenades and grenade launchers, bayonets, armor-piercing firearms and ammunition, weaponized drones and tracked combat vehicles. It also would require the Pentagon to take back equipment if found to be used against protesters in violation of their First Amendment rights, and would require certain certifications and reports on equipment transfers.
The pair of Senate votes is likely Democrats' only shot at tackling the military gear program in the $741 billion defense bill. The Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass its version of the NDAA on Tuesday, but House leaders decided against granting votes on amendments aimed at curtailing the 1033 program.
In the run up to Tuesday's vote, several dozen advocacy groups from across the political spectrum endorsed the measure, including the NAACP, the American Bar Association, FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union.
Republicans, meanwhile, argued that the program has proved a good value for taxpayers and said the proposal would leave local police departments under-resourced and create a more burdensome process for law enforcement to obtain surplus equipment.
The Senate will next vote on a counterproposal from Inhofe to put additional conditions and limits on the transfer of military equipment. That measure also requires 60 votes.
Inhofe's amendment would mandate deescalation training for law enforcement agencies that receive military equipment. It also would prohibit law enforcement from obtaining bayonets, grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones through the program.
"We're talking about adding a few more precautions," Inhofe said. "That program is an effective use of the taxpayers' money.
"For years, local law enforcement has been asked to do more with less, and now they face the liberal cause to defund the police," he said. "We need to be continuing this transparent, responsive program."
Still, the GOP-backed proposal falls short of the restrictions many Democrats had sought.