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Senate eyes protest-sparked NDAA proposals

No-knock warrants and militarized police among amendments that could be debated

Members of the D.C. National Guard patrol the Lincoln Memorial on June 3, after days of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Members of the D.C. National Guard patrol the Lincoln Memorial on June 3, after days of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Concerns about police abuses and the military’s outsize role in responding to recent protests could roil the Senate’s debate on the annual Pentagon policy bill.

Senators have filed scores of amendments to the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill, or NDAA. On Thursday, the Senate voted, 90-7, to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the sprawling measure, which will consume much of the chamber’s time next week.

The list of protest-prompted, racially charged issues is led by the question of whether to rename military bases that honor Confederates and to expunge related displays, signs and symbols.

But the list of potential amendments on protest-related subjects is longer than that, though senators have not yet said which amendments will be made in order.

No-knock warrants

A Minneapolis police officer’s late May killing of George Floyd, a Black man who had been taken into custody, was one of several recent police actions that fueled this month’s protests in multiple American cities.

Another was the March killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in Louisville, after police crashed through her door to execute a so-called no-knock warrant, which does not require the police to identify themselves or otherwise provide warning before entering.

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul has an amendment filed to the NDAA that would ban federal police — and state and local police that receive Justice Department funds — from executing such warrants.

Meanwhile, the growing use of excess military equipment by local police forces has also generated controversy. Paul has filed another amendment that would ban the Pentagon from providing weapons, explosives, drones and other assets to police forces. His proposal would also require proof that the local police are trained and capable of using the equipment they are allowed to receive.

Military’s role

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The debate over the role of the active-duty military in law enforcement also heated up amid this month’s protests.

President Donald Trump had considered wide scale use of regular troops to support the National Guard and local police forces, and he was reportedly prepared to send them to states whether governors and legislatures wanted the troops or not.

Trump sent some active-duty troops to the outskirts of Washington, but they never deployed into law-enforcement action.

A pair of proposals from Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal would rewrite the 1807 Insurrection Act and make it harder for a president to use the active-duty military to quell unrest.

Blumenthal is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his amendment failed to secure a majority when that committee marked up its bill earlier this month.

Blumenthal’s two proposals are different approaches to the same proposition. He would require a certification to Congress that, in cases where the president invokes the act to send regular forces to a state, the state must have either requested the troops or the president must certify the state was “demonstrably unable or unwilling” to put down violence without them.

On a related note, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has filed an amendment that would establish in law the “rebuttable presumption” that an order for a member of the regular military to use force against peaceful protesters is not legal.

Guard’s actions under scrutiny

While the role of the active-duty military appears to be the focus of amendments filed so far, there could also be debate about reservists’ support to law enforcement during crises.

The D.C. National Guard’s use of force against peaceful protesters near the White House on June 1, and its employment of low-flying helicopters for the apparent purpose of intimidating nonviolent demonstrators nearby, could also come up.

D.C. National Guard officials have not answered repeated queries from CQ Roll Call about the weapons their forces had on them — and the actions they took — on June 1.

Another debate has concerned the law enforcement role of forces that are not clearly identifiable as belonging to any organization — be it police, military or other. Images abounded on social media this month of such mysterious personnel exercising police-like power on American streets, particularly in the nation’s capital.

Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy has filed an amendment that would require military personnel and Defense Department police and contractors to display badges that clearly identify for whom they work.

The House Armed Services Committee will mark up that chamber’s NDAA on July 1, and some of the same matters are expected to arise there.

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