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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 RushCongress: Support the ARC Act to prevent amputations Hillicon Valley: Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for TikTok | House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks | Biden campaign urges Facebook to remove Trump posts spreading 'falsehoods' House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks 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 LeePocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Grand jury charges no officers in Breonna Taylor death Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China's role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime 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 BassJoyce Beatty elected next chair of Congressional Black Caucus Feinstein pushes for California secretary of state to replace Harris in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience 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 ScottDemocrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Pfizer unveils detailed analysis of COVID-19 vaccine & next steps GOP senators congratulate Harris on Senate floor 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 NortonRecord number of Black women elected to Congress in 2020 Lawmakers say infrastructure efforts are falling victim to deepening partisan divide The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states 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 BidenBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE leading President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts 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 KildeeDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal Democrats set to hold out for big police reform 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."