This week: Congress set for showdown on police reform legislation
Congress’s debate over police reform legislation is set to come to a head this week.
Both the House and Senate are set to take up dueling police reform legislation in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
House Democrats and Senate Republicans have offered their own bills to address calls for changes to the law enforcement system and an end to racial profiling and police brutality.
Though the two bills have similarities they also have significant policy differences, including on the use of no-knock warrants and whether to make changes to “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from civil lawsuits.
Absent a deal with Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to tee up a vote on ending debate to proceed to the Senate GOP bill for Wednesday.
To overcome the initial hurdle he’ll need votes from at least seven Democrats, who are grappling with whether they should block the bill or let the legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), come up for debate and try to change it.
“All we know is that Sen. McConnell wants to move to a motion to proceed. We don’t know if that means that there will be amendments or no amendments. … There’s no basic understanding as we move forward,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters late last week.
“If we felt that it was an honest process, where we can offer different ideas or even negotiate in advance a package that might be considered on the floor, I think more Democrats would be open,” he added.
Democrats want a deal on amendments and have not said if they will block the legislation if they don’t get it. In addition to the differences on no-knock warrants and qualified immunity, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) singled out the language in the GOP bill on chokeholds, which would eliminate some federal grants if a state or local department does not have a ban.
“I don’t understand. If you want to ban chokeholds and other brutal tactics that have killed Black Americans in police custody, why don’t you just ban them?” he asked.
Scott, the only Black GOP senator, defended the chokehold provision in his bill on Sunday, noting that by blocking the federal funding they were incentivizing departments to ban them.
“The House knows and the Senate knows that you can’t ban local use of chokeholds or state use of chokeholds except for the compelled behavior by the federal grants that come into play,” he said. “And by removing those federal grants, you actually position those departments to change their behavior, change their policy.”
He also said leveraging the federal funds will “compel or coerce” local police agencies to improve data collection, training, de-escalation of situations and the duty to intervene.
Republicans have added that if Democrats want to make changes to the GOP police reform bill then they should let it come up for debate, where they could try to strike a deal on amendment votes. Asked how many amendment votes he would give Democrats, McConnell told reporters they “have to get on it first.”
In addition to trying to incentivize police departments to ban chokeholds, the GOP bill includes new reporting on the use of force by police and the use of no-knock warrants. It also includes new penalties for not using body cameras, has new requirements on law enforcement records retention and would include a separate bill that makes lynching a federal hate crime.
Democrats, who believe they have leverage given polls showing support for action, argue the GOP bill is “ineffective” and doesn’t meet the breadth of reforms needed.
Instead, the House will take up the Democratic police reform bill on Thursday, where it is largely expected to pass along party lines.
“The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a direct response to the outpouring of calls across the nation to confront systemic racism and end police brutality. Now that this bill has been marked up the Judiciary Committee, I will bring it to the House Floor for a vote next Thursday, June 25,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement.
“The Democratic-led House will not delay in taking action to make it clear that Black lives matter and that reforms are needed to change the culture of law enforcement and improve police accountability.”
Democrats introduced a sweeping bill earlier this month that overhauls qualified immunity, restricts the use of no-knock warrants and places a federal ban on chokeholds.
Republicans have complained that they were shut out of the drafting process. McConnell dismissed the Democratic bill, signaling it would not be taken up in the Senate even if it passes the House.
“The House version is going nowhere in the Senate. It’s basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington. We have no interest in that,” McConnell told reporters.
And President Trump slammed the bill in a tweet over the weekend, saying that it will “destroy our police.”
“Republican Congressmen & Congresswomen will hopefully fight hard to defeat it. We must protect and cherish our police, they keep us safe!” he tweeted, though Democrats are expected to have the votes to pass the bill.
If both the House and Senate are able to pass their competing bills, that could result in a conference committee where they would try to hash out a final agreement. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said late last week that she wanted to go to a conference, which GOP senators hoped was meant as a sign to Schumer and Senate Democrats to provide the votes to help pass a bill in the Senate.
“You can’t have a conference unless you go to the bill. So hopefully the Senate Democrats will listen to the Democratic Speaker,” McConnell told reporters.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added: “I hope there was a message there.”
Justice Department fallout
The fallout over the decision by Attorney General William Barr to oust Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is likely to have reverberations on Capitol Hill this week.
Barr sent shockwaves through Washington over the weekend when he initially announced that Berman was stepping down and that Trump would nominate Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to permanently fill the position.
Berman initially said that he had not stepped down and would only resign once a Senate-confirmed successor was in place. Berman then said on Saturday evening that he was leaving “effective immediately” after Barr said he had requested his official firing from Trump.
“In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting U.S. Attorney, I will be leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately,” Berman said in a statement.
Democrats viewed the ousting of Berman as the latest sign that Barr was trying to politicize the Justice Department. Berman’s office ran the probe that sent Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to prison and is investigating his current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that he would open up an investigation into the incident “as part of our broader investigation into Barr’s unacceptable politicization of the Department of Justice.”
Nadler has also publicly invited Berman to testify as part of a prescheduled hearing on “political interference and threats to prosecutorial independence” within the Justice Department. He noted in his statement that if Trump fired Berman the committee would “take additional steps to secure his testimony as well.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is also asking for an investigation and hearings in the wake of Berman’s ousting.
“I write to request an investigation and hearings regarding political interference in the work of the Justice Department, including an examination of Attorney General Barr’s effort to remove – and the President’s firing of – Geoffrey Berman,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the committee.
The House is slated to take up controversial legislation aimed at granting Washington, D.C., statehood on June 26.
If Democrats are successful in having the historic measure pass the House, it would mark the first time legislation to make D.C. the 51st state passed either chamber. The measure passed out of committee in February in a 21-16 vote.
“For the first time, statehood will put an end to our oldest slogan, ‘Taxation without representation,’ ” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said at a press conference following the announcement of the vote.
The lack of representation for the District of Columbia has long been a contentious topic, with proponents arguing that its population is higher than Wyoming and Vermont.
Critics fear it would give disproportional power to Democrats and argue that it is unconstitutional.
“D.C. will never be a state,” Trump said in an interview with the New York Post in May. “You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No, thank you. That’ll never happen.”
Hoyer argued that if the city leaned red, Republicans would have already granted it statehood.
“There’s no doubt in my mind if this were a Republican city and a white city that this would have happened some time ago,” he told The Washington Post. “And it should happen. I’ve decided that this is the time to fully engage the reality of the moment as to whether we are going to treat people with the respect and dignity and the rights they should have under the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The measure faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Veto override vote
The House will try to override Trump’s veto of a resolution rebuking a Department of Education rule that critics argue will hinder student loan borrowers’ ability to seek loan forgiveness from predatory institutions.
Congress voted earlier this year to overturn the regulation that would put restrictions on an Obama-era “borrower defense” rule that was meant to regulate the for-profit sector and protect students who had been misled by colleges. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has argued that students should have to prove they were financially harmed.
The more restrictive rule would give full relief only to students who earn much less than students in similar programs. Under the new formula, the remaining students would have no more than 75 percent of their loans forgiven.
The Department of Education projects the rule change — which is expected to take effect in July — could save upward of $10 billion over the course of the next decade. Democrats have blasted the notion that the rule outweighs the costs on students.
“Instead of easing regulations and oversight on predatory for-profit schools, we need to stand up for students and open up quality, affordable opportunities in education for everyone,” Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) said in a statement earlier this year.
The Senate is expected to take up Cory Wilson’s nomination to be an appeals judge on the 5th Circuit.
Wilson, if he’s confirmed, will be the 200th judicial nominee confirmed for Trump since he took over the White House in January 2017.
If Wilson is confirmed he will also fill the only vacancy currently among the influential appeals courts, where Republicans have filled more than 50 appellate judge seats.
Democrats and their outside group allies have come out against Wilson over his views on the Affordable Care Act and civil rights.
“Mr. Wilson is a far-right firebrand whose record shows he is more suited to serve as a Fox News commentator than federal judge. … He has engaged in ad hominem attacks on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats. He is unfit to serve a lifetime appointment on the federal bench,” Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.
But Republicans hold a 53-47 seat majority. Under a rules change enacted by Democrats, district and appeals court nominees only need a simple majority to be confirmed, meaning as long as Republicans largely stick together Wilson would be confirmed despite Democratic opposition.
No Republican has said they will oppose Wilson’s nomination. He could lose three GOP senators and still let Vice President Pence break a tie.