House markup of airport, border security bills grows heated

House markup of airport, border security bills grows heated

A lengthy markup of airport and border security measures quickly turned testy on Wednesday after lawmakers opened with a somber moment of silence for the victims of the Brussels terrorist attacks.

The House Homeland Security Committee approved a stack of bills by voice vote to strengthen airport and border security. One of the bills, H.R. 4549, would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to provide security screening at certain small airports. Another measure, H.R. 4698, would require TSA to conduct airport security assessments and implement a security coordination enhancement plan at airports that have direct flights to the U.S.

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"Moving this legislation sends a message that this committee is invested in TSA engaging with international partners to raise the level of aviation security overseas,” said the panel’s ranking Democrat, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

The markup came just one day after a series of deadly terrorists attacks were carried out on an airport and subway station in Brussels.

“These attacks reminded us of our own vulnerability and the reality that we must live with every day,” said Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “The bills we will mark up today address some of these vulnerabilities, but we must remain vigilant and continue to look for ways to protect our citizens.”

But soon after McCaul called up a southwest border security bill, H.R. 4482, for consideration, Thompson objected to a unanimous consent request to dispense of the first and second readings of the bill – a standard procedure in committee markups. Lawmakers then agreed, 14-6 along party lines, to a motion to dispense of the first reading. 

Tensions escalated when the previous question was ordered on a substitute amendment to the bill. Thompson quickly interjected,  “so we’re not going to take up the bill? I have some amendments that I want to offer.” 

McCaul eventually allowed Thompson to offer a slate of amendments to the legislation.

“We could choose to pull some parliamentary shenanigans and not support this amendment, but in the spirit of trying to restore some bipartisan nature to the serious issues that we’re dealing with today, I support the gentleman’s amendment,” said Arizona Republican Martha McSally. “This is why people are so frustrated with Congress.”

The amended legislation was later approved by voice vote, but Democrats continued to say they were concerned that a different measure — one that would require the Homeland Security secretary to use testimony from former violent extremists in an effort to counter terrorist recruitment — never received a hearing. They were also frustrated by an en bloc group of Democratic amendments, which were rebuffed by voice vote but didn't receive a roll call vote because McCaul said Thompson didn’t ask for one in time. 

“It just really is a low point for this committee,” said California Democrat Loretta Sanchez.

Republicans maintained that they asked for edits on the bill prior to the meeting, but never received any feedback other than Democrats vowing to oppose the legislation.

"It's not how I wanted to conduct this markup,” McCaul said.