Senate GOP shifts on police reform
Senate Republicans are signaling a sharp shift on police reform, raising the chances that federal legislation could actually clear Congress and reach President Trump’s desk.
Just a week ago, it seemed likely that a legislative package would pass the House but run into a dam in the Senate, where Republicans seemed more focused on retaining their majority and bolstering an economy tanked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the dark political clouds hovering over the White House and the Senate’s GOP majority coupled with a dramatic swing in polling showing a majority of Americans believe African Americans are the victims of excessive force by police have changed the political winds.
So have missteps by President Trump, who has GOP senators worried their majority is at greater risk given his handling of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African American Republican in the Senate, has been tapped by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to lead a working group of GOP senators in drafting police reform legislation.
Scott on Tuesday met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and deputy assistant to the president Ja’Ron Smith to discuss reforms.
“I think it’s important to have a response,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
“None of us have had the experience of being an African American in this country and dealing with this discrimination, which persists here some 50 years after the 1964 civil rights bill and the 1965 civil rights bill,” he added.
“We’re still wrestling with America’s original sin,” McConnell said, referring to slavery. “We try to get better but every now and then it’s perfectly clear we’re a long way from the finish line.”
“I think the best way for the Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own, who’s had these experiences — he’s had them since he’s been in the United States Senate,” McConnell said of Scott.
Democrats have noticed a change in the Senate.
“There were no signs or signals last week but if they did what I did and went home and talked to the people who were engaged in the demonstrations and speaking out, they may have come to a different conclusion,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).
McConnell last week did not make any commitment to moving police reform legislation, only telling reporters “there may be a role for Congress to play,” saying he would talk with colleagues “about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do.”
While McConnell said the deaths of Floyd and other African Americans were “egregious wrongs,” he made no mention of police reform legislation when laying out the agenda for the June work period.
McConnell on Tuesday said Republicans would decide to proceed legislatively once Scott and the working group of GOP colleagues he is leading make their recommendations.
“Once Sen. Scott and his team decide what to recommend, we’ll let you know,” he said.
The pressure on the GOP-controlled Senate to act has increased because of Trump, who has alarmed Republicans with his tweets and other actions related to the crisis.
On Tuesday, Trump annoyed Republicans again with a tweet suggesting that Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester who suffered a head injury after being pushed by Buffalo, N.Y., police, may be an “ANTIFA provocateur.”
A number of GOP senators dodged questions about the tweet on Tuesday, while McConnell sought to refocus attention on how Senate Republicans, not the president, are responding to the protests.
Scott told reporters after the Republican Caucus lunch that the GOP bill will likely include anti-lynching legislation that stalled on the Senate floor last week as well as proposals to review no-knock warrants, such as the one that led to Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Ky., and funding for more police body cameras.
House Democrats unveiled their own legislation Monday, and it is likely to be much broader than anything that emerges from the Senate — which will create a huge challenge to delivering a measure to Trump.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said the goal is to pass bipartisan legislation. “I think there’s some common ground there we could find. It depends on whether the Democrats are willing to work with us,” he said.
Scott on Tuesday discussed one difference. He said the GOP legislation would differ from a Democratic proposal on no-knock warrants by establishing a mechanism to notify the federal government when they’re used so lawmakers can have more information. He noted that the Democratic legislation would ban no-knock warrants in drug cases, a step he described as too far for him and the GOP.
“I basically shy away from telling local law enforcement you shouldn’t do that or you can’t do this,” he said.
Scott and his group are also reviewing proposals addressing the use of force by police officers that results in death or serious bodily injury, such as finding a way to collect more data. He noted that only about 40 percent of police departments are reporting to the Department of Justice about incidents that lead to death or serious injury.
The Senate GOP working group is also looking at increasing deescalation training and possibly bias training as well for police. One idea is to establish a national police commission study to examine “best practices that can be used across all departments,” Scott said.
Scott’s working group includes Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the sponsors of the Democratic bill, said Tuesday he is having conversations with Scott.
“Tim’s a good friend, we’re having a lot of conversations,” he said.