Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress

Calls for law enforcement reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s death are sparking divisions in Congress, raising early questions about what, if anything, will be able to make it to President Trump’s desk. 

Lawmakers are grappling with how to respond to days of protests fueled by the police killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died last week while detained by Minneapolis police, that revived the national conversation about lingering racial inequality and the use of force by police officers. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said “there may be a role” for lawmakers.

“We’ll be talking to our colleagues about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. 

Other GOP senators appeared more skeptical about legislation, underscoring potential roadblocks in the Republican-controlled chamber.  

“I don’t think so,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, asked if he thought Congress would pass reform legislation. “I highly suspect it would be political.” 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, said that law enforcement reform legislation was “opportunistic” and “misses the point.”

“This idea that we somehow are going to paint all of law enforcement with a brush of racism is outrageous in and of itself and it’s obviously designed to divide the country further,” Cornyn said about the prospects for legislation. 

But that’s likely to be met with fierce pushback from Democrats, who want to pass legislation in roughly a month. 

In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) estimated that up to 50 pieces of legislation were under discussion and that the Congressional Black Caucus will take the lead on proposing a package. While the House isn’t scheduled to hold votes until the end of the month, he didn’t rule out that they could return earlier if they come up with an agreement. 

“We’ll be coming together in support of those initiatives, and I expect that to happen in the near future. … If, in fact, legislation is proposed by the CBC, the Congressional Black Caucus, and is considered by the committee and ready to go, we will then call all the members back to pass … that legislation,” Hoyer told reporters. 

House Democrats held a call on Monday where they discussed various ideas and are expected to talk again on Thursday. 

Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) are pushing legislation to require federal officers to resort to force only as a last alternative. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that rank-and-file Democrats disagree over whether the goal should be sweeping legislation or a piecemeal approach, which might have a better chance of becoming law. 

“In a matter of just a short time, those decisions will be made and I think the American people will be well-served,” Pelosi said. 

Hoyer pointed specifically to legislation, sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), to ban police “chokeholds.” And Pelosi said efforts to root out racial profiling would be at the forefront. 

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday introduced a series of 10 proposals designed to rein in police brutality, particularly against African Americans. Dubbed the “Harlem Manifesto,” the package includes measures to prohibit police departments from using military-grade weapons, mandate that all law enforcers wear body cameras and bar private prisons and jails.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is publicly urging McConnell to vote on legislation before the two-week July 4 recess, but the GOP leader’s outline for the Senate’s agenda in June does not include police reform. 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of three black senators, unveiled a framework for legislation that includes making changes to “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from having their actions challenged in court unless an individual can prove that an officer violated a “clearly established” law when their rights were violated. 

Booker’s bill would also make changes to police training and create a national registry to track police misconduct and require state and local officials to report use-of-force incidents to the Justice Department. In addition to Booker, Schumer said several other senators, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), are working on bills. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has tentatively scheduled a hearing on the use of force by police officers for June 16, though he stopped short of pledging to offer legislation. 

“I don’t have anything in mind right now. But hopefully as part of the hearing we can find some things to do together,” he said. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the more moderate members of the GOP caucus, appeared undecided on what Congress’s response should be. 

“I think these are conversations that we need to have. … Is there a right legislative response? I don’t know,” she said. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that he was urging the Justice Department to reinstitute a pattern and practice review of local police departments, which he noted would be easier than getting legislation passed in the Capitol. 

“I think it’s pretty hard to come up with national police reform measures,” Blunt said, “which is why I think it’s better that the Justice Department work with individual police departments … to help them determine what they could be doing better.” 

The partisan divisions were on display Tuesday when Schumer and McConnell blocked each other’s resolutions related to the protests. 

Schumer wanted to pass a resolution that, among other provisions, specifically condemned Trump for gas and rubber bullets being used on protesters near the White House on Monday night. 

McConnell, objecting, offered his own resolution supporting that the “legitimate grievances of peaceful protesters may be heard and considered” and the belief that “order must be immediately restored,” but Schumer blocked it. 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also tried to pass a bill that would provide grants for police training and require an independent review of the use of force, but it was blocked by Graham. 

“With no animosity, I object at this time. I hope we can get it [as] part of a broader agenda,” he said. 

Democrats are planning to force the issue during the upcoming debate over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has said he will introduce an amendment to end a program that “transfers military weaponry to local police departments.” 

The Obama administration previously placed a halt on the so-called 1033 program, blocking the transfer of armored vehicles, grenade launchers and armed aircraft, among other things. But the Trump administration rescinded the restrictions in 2017. 

But Inhofe, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, rejected using the Senate’s version of the NDAA, which he spearheads, to make changes to the program. 

“The program, because I’ve been involved in this for a long period of time — in my state of Oklahoma — in small communities, they really depend on getting equipment, and so I am not concerned about that,” Inhofe said. 

Mike Lillis contributed 

Tags Adriano Espaillat Ben Cardin Brian Schatz Charles Schumer Cory Booker Donald Trump George Floyd protests Hakeem Jeffries James Inhofe John Cornyn Lacy Clay law enforcement reform Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Police Ro Khanna Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer Tammy Duckworth

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