Peters plans investigations into COVID response, domestic terrorism

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — As a new committee chairman, Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters said Thursday he intends to investigate the growing threat of domestic terrorism, as well as the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Peters, incoming chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, cited the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year to underscore the pressing need to address domestic terrorism.

"I raised the issue frequently as the ranking member in the last two years with the Trump administration and did not get the response that any of us would like from that administration. That will now change under a Biden administration," Peters said Thursday on a press call. 

The Bloomfield Township Democrat wants to gather better data on extremism so officials know what they're dealing with and so that law enforcement may employ intelligence assets to track extremist groups and their plans to "create mayhem." He also aims to strengthen coordination with local law enforcement using federal resources.

Peters previously said he intends to hold hearings to probe the security and intelligence failures behind the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, particularly the response by Capitol Police. 

The top Republican on the panel, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, has indicated his intent to work with Peters and the leaders of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees Capitol operations, to investigate the incident, which resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer.

Also a priority for Peters in the new Congress will be oversight of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as cybersecurity in the wake of the alleged attack last year by Russia on the networks of the U.S. government and private companies. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, speaks on a call about his priorities as incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

Peters said he plans to issue a comprehensive report on the government response to the coronavirus pandemic, starting from the beginning, to evaluate best practices and to "make sure we don't make some of the very large mistakes that were made."

"We will have a future pandemic and we have to handle it much better than this one was handled," he said. 

His committee oversees the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That entity is supposed to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to coordinate with the states on vaccine distribution, but the rollout faltered under President Donald Trump. 

"We found in the previous administration states were pretty much left up to their own to do their thing and that is not the way you deal with a national emergency, especially of the magnitude of what we're dealing with in the pandemic," Peters said. 

"That is now changing. We're seeing a much more robust effort from FEMA. We need to continue to press that." 

Peters was among the Senate Democratic leaders who met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday to discuss Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package, which would include nearly $50 billion appropriated to FEMA to assist local authorities with distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines and funding to set up vaccine sites.

"One issue that I raised directly with the president and what I'm hearing from folks across Michigan is that there needs to be more certainty when it comes to the supply of the vaccine," Peters said.

"You can't operate efficiently if you find out on Friday afternoon what you're going to get the following week."

Republicans don't support Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package, so Senate Democrats this week began the process of moving the legislation using budget reconciliation. That would let them to maneuver around the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster and pass it through the chamber with a simple 51-vote majority. 

Asked if that approach would set an "uneasy tone" for the bipartisan unity that Biden's been pushing, Peters said he hoped that Republicans in the Senate and House to would support the legislation "and certainly we welcome their input."

"When we're talking about bipartisanship, I think it's important to recognize that if you look at public opinion polls, this plan is widely supported by Americans, including a very large percentage of folks who identify as Republicans. You also have the broad support of governors across the country both Republican and Democratic governors," Peters said.

"There's widespread support for the notion that we have to take action, and it has to be actually that is sufficient to get us through this pandemic."

Biden met Monday with a group of 10 Republican senators about their $600 billion framework for a COVID-19 stimulus bill, but the administration has indicated it's sticking with its $1.9 trillion package. 

Republican senators have criticized the plan to move the package using reconciliation, especially with provisions like a $15 minimum wage tucked inside. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Democrats had "chosen a totally partisan path." 

"So we're off to a totally partisan start. I think that's unfortunate. I think our 10 members laid out a proposal that could have gotten broad bipartisan support, giving the new administration a chance to get a bipartisan victory here early," McConnell told reporters. 

"But they are in the majority in the House and Senate. And life is a series of choices. And they've chosen. So we'll go down that path." 

Asked if Democrats might agree to strip out controversial provisions like the $15 an hour minimum wage, Peters noted the package is still being negotiated. 

"We still hope to be able to have broad support and hopefully to have Republicans joining us in voting for a package," Peters said.

"I don't want to negotiate on on television as to where we are in the package, but understand that it is critically important that we're helping everyday folks get through this crisis and to be able to thrive when we get to the other end of it."