Biden takes careful approach to police reform
President Biden is keeping his distance from police reform legislation negotiations on Capitol Hill, using his bully pulpit to publicly demand action on reform but leaving the legislating to lawmakers.
The strategy is meant to give Republicans and Democrats time to come together on a police reform measure that can pass the Senate, and allies say that Biden is likely to become more intimately involved in the process at the appropriate moment.
Behind the scenes, the White House has been engaging with lawmakers and offices on Capitol Hill involved in the discussions on police reform and Biden held a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) recently during which the issue came up.
Still, Biden has not yet convened meetings focused on police reform specifically and the White House has danced around questions about whether he has pressed Republicans in private conversations on the issue.
“Joe Biden is a very pragmatic realist. He understands the legislative process,” said Moe Vela, a former Biden adviser. “The reason he is giving them room to negotiate and compromise is he knows especially in a divided Congress and country … that the hope of getting anything done and getting any progress is rooted in compromise and collaboration.”
The renewed push for policing reform after the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd has underscored the need for Biden to pick and choose where to use his political capital. He has spent weeks courting Republicans to support an infrastructure proposal, and the White House signaled Thursday he would continue to hold meetings with lawmakers on that issue into next month.
Next week, Biden is expected to roll out his American Families Plan, which will focus on investing roughly $1 trillion in education and child care programs. Passing it will require him to win over skeptical Democrats at a minimum so that the proposal can pass via budget reconciliation with 50 votes in the Senate.
Advocates are being patient with the administration given the amount of energy officials need to spend on fighting the pandemic, but they say tackling racial injustice is a must.
“We understand and we realize that [with Democrats] controlling the House and the Senate and the White House, we have a short window,” said DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform.
Officials said Biden’s commitment earlier this week both on a call with George Floyd’s family and in an address to the nation that he would see to it that policing reform gets done reflects that he is serious about putting his weight behind the effort.
“I think it makes a world of difference when a president does it because a president is signaling that this is a priority, that this is something that has to get done, that the president is going to work to get done,” said Phil Schiliro, who served a stint as director of legislative affairs in the Obama White House. “That doesn’t mean it will get done. It all depends on the votes. But sometimes the president saying that can be the difference between getting it done and not getting it done.”
Vela noted that the White House would be wise to spend significant time and resources in seeing a police reform measure across the finish line, particularly given the support from Black voters who propelled Biden to the White House.
“They wouldn’t be sitting there if it wasn’t for the African American electorate. So if you’re going to use political capital, I would expect they’re going to use a substantial amount of it on the constituency that played arguably the greatest role in getting him elected,” Vela said.
Democrats and Republicans remain far apart in the police reform debate, particularly when it comes to the issue of qualified immunity, leaving some allies of the White House skeptical that a bill can be passed.
“This is something that Biden wants to do but I don’t know how fast it can get done,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “The problem isn’t how much Biden is pushing on the accelerator on this. The issue really is that particularly over the last few months, the Republican electoral strategy is to make clear to white voters that black grievances on voting and criminal justice aren’t real.”
Kessler, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), expressed concerns that a police reform measure could go the way of the immigration reform effort under the Obama administration.
“I know there are Republicans that want to be holistic on this but what I’m afraid of is that this falls into the same whirlpool that the 2013 immigration bill did which was, as we were getting closer to getting something done, Republicans abruptly retreated and scuttled efforts out of fear of their base,” he said.
Some advocates have also expressed concerns that the Chauvin guilty verdict could lessen the pressure on Congress to get a reform bill passed, meaning Biden’s involvement could be all the more important.
“I think the verdict if anything is more ammunition for legislators who wouldn’t be inclined to support police reform to not support it because the verdict for them shows that the system ‘works’ and, why would it need to change?” said Alexis Hoag, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and former senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) are negotiating a compromise bill.
“I have been talking to the White House about policing reform before they became the Biden administration,” Booker told reporters Wednesday. “This is a big issue and critically important to this country.”
The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act earlier this year in a party-line vote. But the bill’s inclusion of a policy that would overhaul qualified immunity that grants certain protections for law enforcement has been a roadblock to garnering Republican support in the Senate.
Scott’s bill, the Justice Act, covers many of the same areas of concern addressed by the Democrats’ bill such as the banning of chokeholds. The senator, who is the lone Black Republican in the Senate, signaled after the passage of the George Floyd bill that he was hopeful the two sides could find common ground.
As the White House undertakes a low-key outreach to Capitol Hill, the Biden administration is taking steps to address policing unilaterally by trying to increase accountability of police departments.
Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this month rescinded a Trump-era memo that curtailed the use of consent decrees to reform police departments accused of wrongdoing. Less than 24 hours after Chauvin’s conviction, Garland also announced that the Justice Department has opened a pattern or practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.
There are limits to what the federal government and Congress can do to advance police reform, particularly because most of the 18,000 police departments across the country are state or local law enforcement agencies.
Hoskins said it is incumbent on the administration to work directly with people in communities impacted by gun and police violence and to work with the goal of eliminating systemic racism in law enforcement and other institutions.
“We’re not willing to dig deep enough as to what’s the real problem,” she said. “The real problem is racism.”
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