Skepticism looms over police reform deal

Congress is facing a familiar enemy as it hunts for a deal on police reforms: the body’s own penchant for gridlock. 

Lawmakers want to reach a bipartisan agreement that could respond to the calls from across the country for reforms after George Floyd’s death, but tackling big social issues is something they’ve routinely failed at in recent years. 

Senators say reaching a deal won’t be easy, and some are already expressing skepticism given the deep differences underscored by competing proposals circulating around Capitol Hill. 

“It’s hard, it’s really hard. The president said he’s a law and order president and suggested sending in American troops to replace law enforcement. I mean, he is not creating an environment, a positive environment, for the kind of change that’s needed, so I’m skeptical that we’ll come up with something, but we should try,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Asked about the odds of a deal, Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) told reporters that “if this were the first time we were in this situation, I’d be more hopeful.”

Lawmakers, facing pressure to act, have already introduced or are circulating legislation. 

In a positive sign, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declined this week to name a provision in the House Democratic proposal that he disagreed with, telling reporters that “there’s a place where we can work together.” 

But deep divisions are already emerging on key issues such as a ban on chokeholds and changes to “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that helps shield police officers from lawsuits. 

House Republicans, feeling like they were left out of the drafting process for the Democratic proposal, are preparing to introduce their own measure. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican senator, is expected to introduce his proposal early next week. The White House is also expected to roll out an executive order. 

Scott is respected on both sides of the aisle and teamed up with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime. 

In 2018, the three senators made history when the Senate approved their legislation, marking the first time Congress had been able to pass anti-lynching legislation after trying roughly 200 times since 1918. 

Yet Harris, asked about Scott’s forthcoming bill, noted that based on what she knew, “it does not meet the moment.” 

“It’s so far from being relevant to really the crisis at hand and what we need to do to solve the problems that are obvious,” she added. 

Asked about skepticism from Democrats that his plan might be too incremental, Scott urged “patience.” 

Sen. John Thune (S.D), the No. 2 Republican senator, acknowledged that getting a deal won’t be easy but characterized the ongoing conversations among Republicans as positive. 

“Good question,” Thune said when asked how Congress would avoid the partisan pitfalls that have tripped up past deals. 

“It’s going to take a lot of perseverance … and it’s going to take a high level of bipartisanship to get it done,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, it’s a work in progress and there’s no guarantees, but I like where it’s headed.” 

Trump has been unable to reach deals with Congress on issues such as gun violence and immigration. 

In 2018, Trump convened a bipartisan working group at the White House on gun reforms after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. During the meeting, much of which was televised, Trump told lawmakers he would take a look at an assault weapons ban bill, told Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that he was “afraid” of the National Rifle Association and backed “strong” background checks. 

Then, in 2019, the White House also talked behind the scenes with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) after shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. The talks never ended up with a deal, and the country’s attention shifted. 

On immigration, a bipartisan group used their leverage in 2018 to force a debate ahead of a Trump-imposed deadline to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the end the Senate voted on three bills, none of which were able to get the 60 votes needed to ultimately pass. A plan put together by centrists came the closest, and supporters specifically attributed its failure to fierce opposition from the Department of Homeland Security and an eleventh-hour veto threat from the White House.  

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) specifically pointed to the debate over gun reforms as a reason for skepticism.

“President Trump and Senate Republicans initially tried to make the right noises. … But, predictably, that debate never came to pass,” he said. 

Lawmakers and Trump have managed to net one significant victory on social reforms when Congress passed a criminal justice bill in 2018 after years of being stuck in legislative limbo amid vocal opposition from conservatives and an indifferent reception from GOP leadership. 

But that bill, unlike police reform, already had broad bipartisan support in both chambers. Supporters believe it could have passed in 2016, but GOP leaders didn’t want to give it a vote ahead of an election where they were defending roughly two dozen seats. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he’s spoken with a couple of Democrats, though he declined to say who they were, and pointed to criminal justice reform as an example that Congress can pass a deal — if it wants to. 

“I think there’s some common ground, if you want it. … If you want to play politics, we’ll go nowhere,” Graham said. 

He added in a tweet Friday that “time will tell” if Democrats “will work with Republicans or just politically posture.”

Looming over the debate on Capitol Hill as a wild card is Trump, who came to power by positioning himself as tough on crime, and the growing shadow of the election. 

Coons added Trump will “have to do a lot” to convince Congress he really wants a deal.

“President Trump initially says, ‘I’m not going to do anything on it,’ gradually comes to say, ‘Yes I’ll do something on it,’” Coons said. “There’s some attempt by a bipartisan working group. … We saw this play out several times. And I think the credibility of the president that he will actually support some significant reforms is pretty low.” 

Tags Charles Schumer Chokeholds Chris Coons Chris Murphy Christopher Coons Cory Booker Defunding police Dick Durbin Donald Trump George Floyd protests Joe Manchin John Thune Kevin McCarthy Lindsey Graham Pat Toomey police reform Tim Scott
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