Republicans walk tightrope on police reform

Republicans walk tightrope on police reform
© Bonnie Cash

Congressional Republicans are walking a fine line as they craft police reforms in response to the public outcry over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody last month.

GOP leaders don’t support the Democrats’ legislation — an expansive reform package unveiled Monday — but are working on a more narrow alternative to acknowledge both the widespread outrage following Floyd’s death and the remarkable shift in public sentiment toward racial bias in law enforcement over the past two weeks.

Republicans are also treading carefully, wary not to collide with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE, a self-proclaimed “law and order” champion who is cheering the nation’s police forces while condemning protesters across the country.

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It’s that tightrope that GOP leaders are navigating discreetly as they prepare to introduce their police reform bill as early as this week.

“We believe in the ability to protest … as an American, to have a voice,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySupreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida's coronavirus surge raises questions about GOP convention McCarthy calls NY requests for Trump tax returns political MORE (R-Calif.), a key Trump ally, said Tuesday in a video posted on Twitter. “We also believe that we don’t judge people by the color of their skin or the uniform that they wear. And that’s the difference that sets us apart from others.”

McCarthy hasn’t identified any specific provisions that will be included in the GOP legislation, but he told the Los Angeles Times there are three potential areas of agreement with Democrats: improving officer training by linking training standards to federal funding, requiring more transparency about allegations of officer misconduct and making it easier to fire bad officers.

The GOP leader has asked Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanNadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (Ohio), the conservative firebrand and top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, to take the lead in drafting the legislation. Jordan, the founding chairman of the House Freedom Caucus who is close to Trump and new White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Miami pauses reopenings as COVID-19 infections rise, schools nationally plot return Overnight Health Care: Trump downplaying of COVID-19 sparks new criticism of response Trump downplaying sparks new criticism of COVID-19 response MORE, told colleagues the GOP bill could come this week, though some Republican aides characterized that timeline as overly ambitious.

“I think Republicans are being deliberate here. This will be a fact-finding process,” said one GOP aide familiar with the effort. “We’re trying to make sure that what happened to George Floyd does not happen again, while ensuring that the interests of good police officers — which represent the vast majority of police — are looked out for.”

Amid the debate, Republicans are accusing Democrats of pushing to defund police departments around the country — a movement that’s gained steam among liberal activists but has been soundly rejected by Democratic leaders. House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerMexico's president uses US visit to tout ties with Trump Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay MORE (D-Md.) said Republicans are merely trying to distract from their own predicament.

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“I think they’re in trouble,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “And I think they’re desperate.”

The debate will launch formally on Wednesday, when the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the Democrats’ proposal. In a sign of his priorities, Jordan has invited Dan Bongino, the outspoken conservative pundit and former Secret Service agent, and Angela Underwood Jacobs, a former GOP congressional candidate whose security guard brother was fatally shot during recent civil unrest in Oakland, Calif., to testify.

Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerNadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' Nadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE (D-N.Y.) has invited one of Floyd’s brothers, Philonise, and the Floyd family’s attorney, Ben Crump, to testify, among others.

The Democrats’ reform package, crafted by leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), leans heavily on the premise that the country’s criminal justice system — from the courts to the police departments — is plagued by systemic racism. Their proposal features efforts to rein in racial profiling and police brutality, largely with new training requirements and tougher accountability measures for abusive officers.

Yet Trump and top administration officials have, in recent days, rejected the central proposition that the nation’s police departments are beset by a culture of racial prejudice.

“I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist,” Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBarr says Black Lives Matter 'distorting the debate' Barr: Don't defund police, invest in them Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE said over the weekend.

That position has complicated the task facing congressional Republicans, who are seeking to craft police reforms that are sensitive to the concerns of minority voters without stepping on the tough-on-crime message coming from the White House.

Recent polls have highlighted the dilemma they face.

A new CNN survey found that 67 percent of voters believe the nation’s criminal justice system favors whites over blacks — up from 52 percent in 2016 — while a whopping 84 percent said the peaceful protests that have followed Floyd’s death are justified.

Another poll, conducted by Monmouth University, found similar results.

Frank Luntz, the veteran GOP pollster, said this week that in 35 years of conducting surveys he’s “never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply.”

“We are a different country today than just 30 days ago,” he tweeted.

Across the GOP conference, there are signs that rank-and-file Republicans are feeling pressure to show solidarity with some of the thousands of protesters who have marched in small and large cities across America.

Retiring Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Key impeachment witness retires | Duckworth presses for information | Subpanel advances defense measure | Democrats press for end to military transgender ban Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - States are pausing reopening MORE of Texas, the sole black GOP House member, marched with protesters last week in Houston, Floyd’s hometown, where he was laid to rest on Tuesday.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who’s running to lead the conservative Republican Study Committee, posted photos of his meeting with black pastors from Fort Wayne, Ind., which experienced rioting in its downtown after Floyd’s killing. The caption of Banks’s Facebook and Instagram posts read: “I want to say as a white, Republican congressman: #BlackLivesMatter.”

And two vulnerable Republicans — Reps. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonGOP lawmaker: Refusal to wear masks is 'tragic' The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Teachers' union President Randi Weingarten calls Trump administration plan to reopen schools 'a train wreck'; US surpasses 3 million COVID-19 cases Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push MORE (Mich.) and Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerPentagon: 'No corroborating evidence' yet to validate troop bounty allegations Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Trump faces bipartisan calls for answers on Russian-offered bounties MORE (Ill.) — said in interviews Tuesday that Republicans can’t sit on their hands as Americans demand action from Washington.

“We know that this unrest is justified. ... We can’t stay still, and we know that,” Upton said on WHTC, a radio station in Holland, Mich., adding that he joined peaceful protesters in Benton Harbor last week.

Upton said he took part in a recent hourlong video call between the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and CBC Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump takes on CDC over schools Tim Scott says he's talking with House Democrats about reviving police reform bill Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations MORE (D-Calif.), who is leading Democrats’ push on police reforms. One idea he supports is establishing a national registry for cops who are accused of misconduct so that “when we do find those bad apples, they are not able to go from one jurisdiction to another and hide that past.”

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Across the Capitol, some Senate Republicans are feeling even more pressure to act, given that their narrow majority is at stake in November and red-state senators like Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse chairman asks CDC director to testify on reopening schools during pandemic Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Pelosi says House won't cave to Senate on worker COVID-19 protections MORE (R-Ky.) represent cities with large black populations.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump takes on CDC over schools Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate Tim Scott says he's talking with House Democrats about reviving police reform bill MORE (S.C.), the only black GOP senator, pitched his police-reform package to colleagues during their weekly lunch on Tuesday and later to White House officials. Meadows, upon leaving the meeting, said Trump wants to see police reforms “sooner [rather] than later.”

The Scott package includes a Senate-passed bill making lynching a federal hate crime. Senate Republicans are also discussing a ban on chokeholds, changes to no-knock warrants and more funding for police body cameras.

Scott is working with Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (R-Utah), who joined a Black Lives Matter march in D.C. over the weekend, as well GOP Sens. Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Chamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report MORE (Neb.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (S.C.) and John CornynJohn CornynLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad Chamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff MORE (Texas).

“I don’t think there’s any deadline, but obviously the problem is serious. And I think everybody is taking it seriously,” Cornyn said.