Democrats set to hold out for big police reform

Democrats set to hold out for big police reform
© Greg Nash

A growing number of Democrats say they're ready to wait until next year to overhaul the criminal justice system.

While party leaders had hoped to use a national outcry for racial justice to enact sweeping police reforms before November, their legislation has hit a wall in the Republican-controlled Senate, where GOP leaders are backing more narrow changes.

The impasse has left Democrats with a choice: accept a piecemeal approach, featuring lesser reforms that both sides support; or kick the debate into 2021, when Democrats are hoping to win control of both the Senate and White House — and have much more power to dictate the terms of the bill.

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In the eyes of more and more Democrats, the decision is a no-brainer.

"Rather than coming up with a piece of the police reform act ... we should really push this over until after the election and move something that is much more powerful," said Rep. Bobby RushBobby Lee RushHouse passes host of bills to strengthen cybersecurity in wake of attacks OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats lay out vision for Civilian Climate Corps | Manchin to back controversial public lands nominee | White House details environmental justice plan Democrats lay out vision for Civilian Climate Corps MORE (D-Ill.).

"We don't want to make a mockery of this moment," he added. "We don't want to see something passed into law that is weak, watered down and whitewashed."

Publicly, Democratic leaders insist there's still time to reach an elusive deal. And leading voices in the caucus have staged weekly press calls during the long July Fourth recess in an effort both to bring Republicans behind the stronger reforms — and to highlight their refusal to do so.

"We're steadfast in not allowing the Senate to dissect the bill," said Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeJackson Lee is third CBC member in three weeks to be arrested protesting for voting rights Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund The faith community can help pass a reparations bill MORE (D-Texas). "It may be that we go into 2021, but I'm not prepared that say that that's our strategy."

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Yet, Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassScott: 'There is hope' for police reform bill Biden: Republicans who say Democrats want to defund the police are lying Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia MORE (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and lead sponsor of the Democrats' reform bill, said this week that she is not currently negotiating with Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottSenate passes bill to award Congressional Gold Medal to first Black NHL player Scott: 'There is hope' for police reform bill Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe MORE (R-S.C.), who drafted the GOP proposal. And a number of rank-and-file Democrats said they see little sign of breaking the stalemate this year, particularly as Congress scrambles to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus crisis.

"There is not enough time to fix it this year," said Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonDuckworth, Pressley introduce bill to provide paid family leave for those who experience miscarriage Congress must step up to fund the Howard University Hospital renovation Activists see momentum as three new states legalize marijuana MORE (D-D.C.). "There's an understanding well beyond me that you don't need to get everything done this year in the midst of a pandemic when you're not getting very much done anyway."

That message belies the urgency of just a few weeks ago, when Democrats were hoping to seize the momentum generated by the massive protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25.

Caught on video, the tragedy prompted mass demonstrations in cities and towns nationwide; prompted a national reckoning with America's racist history; and triggered a swift shift in public opinion toward racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Tapping that energy, House Democrats moved quickly to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on June 25. Crafted by Bass and other CBC leaders, the legislation takes aggressive steps to rein in racial profiling and police brutality by banning police chokeholds; creating a national registry of police misconduct; and making it easier to prosecute and sue individual officers in cases of alleged abuse.

"We are in a moment now that I believe has developed into a movement," Bass said Thursday in an interview with the National Press Club.

Republicans have rejected the Democrats' approach, saying it goes too far to federalize state and local law enforcement. The Scott bill adopts a softer touch, providing new funding for race-based police studies and federal incentives for voluntary local reforms — but without the prohibitions and mandates of the Bass bill.

Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Both sides, by digging in, have taken a political gamble. Republicans risk a backlash at the polls in November for resisting popular reform legislation. Democrats risk the loss of momentum if the nation's attention has turned to other issues by 2021, Democratic president or none.

Yet Democrats rejected the idea that the public push for police reform would wane. And with polls showing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News MORE leading President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE in key battleground states, many are predicting they'll have better luck waiting to return to police reform next year.

Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeOvernight Energy: Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas review | Biden admin reportedly aims for 40 percent of drivers using EVs by 2030 |  Lack of DOD action may have caused 'preventable' PFAS risks Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Cockatoo cooperation key to suburban survival Watchdog: Lack of DOD action may have caused 'preventable' risks from 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-Mich.) said that, given the historic moment, it would be "harmful to the cause" if Democrats accepted a narrower version of their favored reforms. He compared Scott's bill to "a greeting card" in lieu of substantial changes.

And Rush warned that passing portions of police reform now would backfire, acting to diminish the appetite to return to the issue next year.

"If we settle for a little bit now," Rush said, "a little bit is all that we're going to get."