House to pass sweeping police reform legislation

House Democrats are poised to pass historic police reforms on Thursday, setting the stage for a showdown with Republicans in the Senate where efforts to strike a bipartisan deal are dwindling.

A day after the Senate failed to advance a GOP-authored police reform bill, House Democrats will use passage of their legislation to pressure Republicans on the tougher changes they’re seeking to prevent excessive use of force by police nationwide.

George Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice that have put immense pressure on Congress to act. But with both parties digging in on their respective proposals a month after Floyd’s death, odds are decreasing that lawmakers will come to an agreement that can secure President Trump’s signature in an election year.

“No, we can’t compromise if you say no chokeholds and they say some chokeholds. What’s the compromise, fewer chokeholds? No. No chokeholds. But we have to have some fundamental stipulation of fact that certain things are wrong,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told MSNBC on Wednesday, calling the Senate GOP bill a “non-starter.”

The Democrats’ bill, sponsored by Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), is expected to pass easily in the House without Republican support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is certain to shelve it in favor of the Republican alternative, a measure authored by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black GOP senator.

There’s broad disagreement about how — or even whether — the two sides will break the impasse.

Some lawmakers predicted the competing House and Senate proposals are destined for a conference, where designees from each party are charged with ironing out the differences.

“Ultimately, there will probably be a conference — ultimately,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). “But I don’t in any way take issue with Democrats saying, ‘You know we have the stronger bill.’ ”

Others, like House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said the cleaner road to compromise would be to have Senate negotiators smooth out the wrinkles between Scott’s bill and the one championed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.).

“It could very well be that they will come to some kind of a compromise that will fly in the House,” Clyburn said. “Why worry about going to a conference between the two bodies if you can work it out within one body?”

Still others said the more effective strategy would have the top two leaders in each chamber — the so-called four corners — meet to hash out a deal behind closed doors.

“I don’t think Sen. McConnell wants to pass anything,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), former head of the CBC. “But protesters are demanding change, and they want action — they want it now. And I think eventually he’ll have to capitulate. And the way you do it is not to open it up for amendments, it’s not to go to conference. The solution is to get the top leadership to hammer out a deal and get it signed by the president. That’s the only way around it.

“The issue is so toxic,” he added.

While both parties maintain that their respective proposals would help eradicate racial profiling and police brutality — the two issues thrust to national prominence by Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody — there are significant differences in how they go about it.

The House Democrats’ bill would ban chokeholds, require body cameras, prohibit no-knock warrants in drug cases, make lynching a federal crime and create a federal registry of officers with histories of misconduct.

The Senate GOP proposal, meanwhile, would incentivize police departments to make reforms in order to qualify for grant funding but defines chokeholds more narrowly than the House version. It also would require data collection on the use of force by police and, like the House bill, make lynching a federal hate crime.

The House measure is also tougher on the issue of no-knock warrants, banning them outright for all federal agencies pursuing drug cases and withholding federal grants from state and local precincts that decline to do the same. The Senate bill, by contrast, would require departments to report instances when they use no-knock warrants, to provide a basis for federal study.

Democrats contend that Scott’s bill represents incremental — and largely ineffective — reforms at a moment in history when public opinion is shifting in favor of making more sweeping changes.

“The bill has no teeth. It’s just full of studies. And it does not do anything to stem the tide of unjustified police killings of Black people that is endemic to this country,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “It is a matter of acknowledging the fact that systemic racism is alive and well in law enforcement in our country.”

Additionally, the House legislation changes the federal statute defining excessive force, thereby lowering the bar for prosecuting police in cases of misconduct, while also making it easier for victims of police violence to sue individual officers. Senate Republicans and the Trump administration have rejected those changes, warning that eliminating legal police protections is a “poison pill.”

Thursday’s vote in the House is expected to fall along party lines, with few, if any, defections on either side.

All but five centrist Democrats have co-sponsored the bill, signaling the vast majority of the caucus’s moderate and liberal factions will vote for it.

A handful of House Democrats mostly representing competitive districts have yet to publicly commit to the proposal. The offices of the Democrats who hadn’t formally signed on to the legislation — Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.), Daniel Lipinski (Ill.), Jared Golden (Maine), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.) and Ben McAdams (Utah) — didn’t respond when asked on Wednesday if they planned to vote for it.

Senate Democrats blocked the GOP police reform bill from advancing in a key procedural vote on Wednesday, backed by civil rights groups and CBC members urging them to prevent it from moving forward. Only Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Doug Jones (Ala.), and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, voted to proceed to the legislation.

The 55-45 vote fell short of the 60 needed to proceed. McConnell voted against the measure, a procedural tactic that allows him to bring the bill back for another vote.

Democrats complained that Republicans wouldn’t guarantee that they could offer amendments during floor debate, while the GOP accused them of obstructionism by preventing the Senate from even proceeding to the bill.

“The next time another appalling incident makes our nation sick to its stomach with grief and anger yet again, Senate Democrats can explain to the nation why they made sure the Senate did nothing,” McConnell said.

McConnell did leave open the possibility of bringing the legislation to the floor again “should progress be made.”

But Scott expressed pessimism that a deal could be reached anytime soon. He accused Democrats of not wanting to share a victory on police reform with the GOP just four months before the November elections as polls show Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden.

“They cannot allow this party to be seen as a party that reaches out to all communities in this nation,” Scott said. “We could do something right now. … They’ve decided to punt this ball until the election.”

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Angus King Collin Peterson Cory Booker Daniel Lipinski Donald Trump doug jones G.K. Butterfield Hank Johnson Joe Biden Joe Manchin Karen Bass Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Sheila Jackson Lee Tim Scott
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