This week: Lawmakers look to advance police reform bills

Lawmakers are set to ramp up their debate of police reform legislation this week. 

Congress is discussing how to respond to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed while detained by Minneapolis police, which sparked weeks of protests and calls for new legislation. 

Lawmakers are hoping for a bipartisan deal — though steep policy and political hurdles remain — but this week they are set to unveil, or try to advance, competing proposals. 

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will mark up a wide-ranging reform bill, which was introduced by House and Senate Democrats last week. The bill, among other provisions, would ban chokeholds, limit the use of no knock warrants and overhaul “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits. 

Republicans have signaled they are interested in trying to amend the bill, though with Democrats holding a majority on the committee it is unclear if any GOP proposals will make it into the legislation. 

“This is a constantly evolving project. I think that if Democrats would allow Republican amendments at markup, this is one way to get to a piece of legislation that could pass the House in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). 

The markup comes as House Democrats want to vote on the bill this month. They announced over the weekend that they have locked in the votes to pass the bill. 

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip, said on Friday that they had 220 co-sponsors for the bill. 

“Grateful to all of my colleagues who have signed on to this historic policing reform legislation,” he added in a tweet

As House Democrats prepare to move their bill closer to a floor vote, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is expected to unveil the Senate GOP legislation by Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced last week that he had tapped Scott to lead a working group to craft police reform legislation. 

“Is there a path forward that we take a look at the necessity of eliminating bad behavior within our law enforcement community? Is there a path forward? I think we’ll find that,” Scott said during an interview Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

According to a draft circulated earlier this week, Scott’s bill would, among other provisions, increase funding for police body cameras and penalize not wearing them by reducing grants. It would also tie grant eligibility to reporting uses of force that cause death or serious injury to the FBI and to states maintaining a system that shares police records. 

But it did not mandate a ban on chokeholds, though several GOP senators have said they shouldn’t be used, or make changes to qualified immunity, something Scott on Sunday was a “poison pill” for Republicans. 

“From the Republican perspective, and the president has sent a signal that qualified immunity is off the table. They see that as a poison pill on our side,” he added. 

In addition to introducing a bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the use of force by police officers. The House Judiciary Committee held a similar hearing last week where George Floyd’s brother testified. 

“The Committee intends to call a wide variety of witnesses on the topics of better policing, addressing racial discrimination regarding the use of force, as well as building stronger bonds between communities and police,” committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said late last month when he announced the hearing. 

Lands bill

The Senate is expected to wrap up work on a lands package this week after senators held a rare middle-of-the-night vote on Friday, when they returned to the Capitol at 1 a.m. to break a procedural logjam on the bill. 

The bill, known as the Great American Outdoors Act, provides $900 million annually in oil and gas revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The LWCF funds conservation projects like acquiring land for national parks. The Senate bill separately puts $6.5 billion towards addressing a maintenance backlog in the National Park system. 

The early morning vote happened after senators stalemated on allowing potential amendments to the bill, with McConnell moving to wrap up the legislation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to set up votes on five amendments, but was blocked by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), one of the sponsors of the bill. 

On Monday, the Senate will take three additional procedural votes, setting it up for final passage as soon as Tuesday. 

Judicial nominations

McConnell has also teed up a vote on District Judge Justin Walker’s nomination to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is viewed as the second highest court in the land because its jurisdiction includes Congress and government agencies. 

Trump’s decision to nominate Walker, a 38-year-old who was confirmed for his district court seat last year, has fueled weeks of controversy with court watchers on both sides viewing it as the most consequential judicial fight the Senate will have this year absent a Supreme Court vacancy. 

The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance Walker’s nomination earlier this month. Because Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, Democrats will not be able to block his nomination without help from GOP senators, none of whom have said yet that they would oppose him. 

The American Bar Association (ABA) told the committee last month that Walker is “well qualified” for the D.C. Circuit. That came after the ABA had declared him “not qualified” last year for his current position on a Kentucky district court.

Democrats voted against his nomination in committee, citing his limited experience and his previous criticism of the Affordable Care Act.

“Can anyone here say with a straight face that this 38-year-old individual, with no practical courtroom experience and a few months — a few months — on the job as a district court judge in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is the best person for this job?” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked rhetorically. “He’s not and we know it.” 

Defense policy bill

The Senate is expected to take up a mammoth defense policy bill, potentially as soon as this week. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 25-2 last week to advance the $740.5 billion National Defense Authorization Act.

“This year marks the 60th year in a row that the committee has fulfilled our constitutional duty to provide for the common defense by advancing the National Defense Authorization Act — once again with overwhelming support,” committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement. 

The bill authorizes $636.4 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and $25.9 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy. It authorizes $69 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a war fund that isn’t subjected to budget caps. 

But the bill, once it is on the Senate floor, is set to be a lightning rod for debates on everything from changing Confederate-named bases to limiting Trump’s ability to deploy troops within the United States under the Insurrection Act. 

The bill comes at a time of nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice. An amendment approved by the committee would require the Pentagon to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders by setting up a commission that would come up with a plan that would be carried out after three years. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) who says he voted against the amendment in committee, has vowed to try to reverse the language as part of the Senate’s floor debate. 

But the Senate has hit a bottleneck in recent years when it comes to allowing for amendment votes. Absent McConnell deciding to force a vote on an amendment, senators need consent from every senator to bring an amendment up and queue it up for a vote. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said last week that it would be difficult to change the language on the floor since it was approved by the committee. 

“Well, I mean, if it’s in the base bill coming out of the committee then, yeah. … Obviously it’s a heavy lift if we take anything out of the bill,” Thune said.

Tags Cory Gardner Dick Durbin George Floyd protests James Inhofe John Thune Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Mitch McConnell National Defense Authorization Act police reform Tim Scott Will Hurd

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