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Dems push back against border militarization

House Democrats are pushing back against Republican plans to transfer military weapons to law enforcers fighting crime and migration on the southern border.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is preparing an amendment to the Republican border security bill that would block the Pentagon from expanding its "1033" program — which provides free surplus military equipment to local law enforcers — to include border officers. 

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Johnson, who had fought to rein in the 1033 program last summer following a police crackdown on violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., said the transfer of military-grade weapons to the border would only inflame the tensions there.

"We can all agree that we have legitimate security needs at our borders, but militarizing our border through the 1033 program is not the solution and will only contribute to a further increase in tensions," Johnson said Tuesday. "It appears some of my colleagues did not learn the tragic lessons from Ferguson last summer, as the nation saw the devastating and intimidating result of a militarized police force."

Sponsored by Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the Republican border security bill would require the Homeland Security Department to block all illegal migrations into the United States within five years. For high-traffic areas, that window closes to two years.

Toward that goal, the bill provides billions of dollars to build more border fences, shift National Guard officers to the southern border and "allow the Department of Defense to transfer assets from theatre of war and redeploy them to the Southwest border — assets already paid for by the taxpayers," according to McCaul's summary.

McCaul has characterized his bill as "the most significant and toughest border security bill ever set before Congress." But a number of conservatives in both chambers disagree, saying it doesn't go far enough to stop illegal border crossings. 

The push-back from those Republicans forced GOP leaders to yank the bill from a scheduled floor vote Wednesday.

To tamp down the right-wing revolt, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate MORE (R-Ohio) this week announced plans to sue President Obama over his executive actions halting deportations. And McCaul has joined forces with House Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteNo documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself USCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction MORE (R-Va.), vowing to craft complimentary legislation aimed to toughen enforcement efforts and ease the conservatives' concerns.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate MORE on Tuesday did not commit to a timeline for rescheduling a vote on the McCaul bill, saying leaders first need to educate members on the distinction between issues under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.

"We're going to have to walk through all of this with our members and when we're ready to move, we will," he told reporters in the Capitol.

The Pentagon's 1033 program was thrust into the national spotlight last August, after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, a largely black suburb of St. Louis.

The episode sparked violent protests in the streets of Ferguson, and the police response — which included the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, assault rifles and military-grade vehicles — went viral, fueling congressional calls for an examination of how local law enforcers use military force.

The issue is not strictly partisan. Indeed, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate MORE (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite who's eyeing a White House bid in 2016, has been sharply critical of the 1033 program. And last September, Johnson joined forces with Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), another conservative backed by the Tea Party, to sponsor legislation scaling back the program by barring certain types of military equipment from being transferred to local police.

"Our nation was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing," Labrador said at the time. "The Pentagon's current surplus property program blurs that line."