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House, Senate jockey for leverage in police reform debate

House, Senate jockey for leverage in police reform debate
© Bonnie Cash

Lawmakers are jockeying for leverage on police reform legislation as they face intense pressure to act in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. 

Both House Democrats and Senate Republicans took steps forward on Wednesday with dueling measures that seek to respond to calls for changes to the country’s law enforcement system and an end to racial profiling and police brutality.

Underscoring the shift in the political conversation, lawmakers and aides say police reform is ripe for a deal in the wake of Floyd’s death after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and there are areas of agreement among the two bills. 

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But there are also substantial divisions, underscoring that any deal will not be easy and will require compromise. 

Lawmakers, on Wednesday, sought to keep the pressure on each other. 

“We start from two different places,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.). “My Democratic friends have got to decide if they just want to make this a messaging exercise or whether they want to get a result.” 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) called the Senate GOP bill “inadequate,” while Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) called it “ineffective.” 

“What’s clear is that the Senate Republican proposal on policing does not rise to the moment,” Schumer said. 

The Senate GOP bill introduced on Wednesday seeks to eliminate chokeholds by placing restrictions on federal funding for jurisdictions that don’t have a ban; requires that jurisdictions report to the FBI when a weapon is charged or force is used; requires new reporting on the use of no knock warrants, and includes new penalties for incorrectly using body cameras. 

Democrats stopped short of saying that they would block the bill in a test vote set for next week but stressed that the measure needs to be improved. 

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They are trying to build pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.) to offer assurances on what amendments will be allowed if they agree to help bring the GOP bill up for debate. 

“I think we really need to understand from Senator McConnell is this a high noon moment, a one-and-done moment, a take-it-or-leave it moment or does he truly want to sit down and legislate, either sit down and try to find common ground or open up an opportunity on the floor for amendments,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Ill.).

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Biden decides on pick for secretary of State MORE (D-Conn.) said he had not made a decision of whether he would vote to advance Scott’s bill, but that he did not trust McConnell to give Democrats votes on amendments if they vote to start debate on the measure. 

“Absolutely not. I think I’ve voted on one-and-a-half amendments since I’ve been in the United States Senate, so I have no belief that there’s going to be an open amendment process on this bill,” he said. 

Without an agreement on amendments, Democrats worry that they could be stonewalled on the floor and unable to change the GOP measure. 

Republicans counter that the onus should be on Democrats to let them get to the GOP bill and then discuss amendments. 

“I think the leader’s suggestion is the right one, and that is let’s get on the bill and we’ll have an open amendment process. ...I don’t think that kind of demand going into the debate makes a lot of sense,” Thune said, asked about the Democrats' request for an understanding on amendments up front. 

McConnell on Wednesday said the Senate will “have to get on it first” when he was asked as he left a closed-door caucus lunch about what, or how many, Democratic amendments to the bill he would be willing to consider. 

With a 53-seat majority, Republicans would need at least seven Democrats to back advancing the measure if there is to be a formal floor debate.

Democrats feel they have leverage given polls showing public support for action. Durbin shot down any suggestion that the party could face broad criticism for blocking the GOP bill procedurally, but also urged Republicans to come to the negotiating table before the vote. 

“We ought to initiate that conversation and see how close we might be,” Durbin added. 

So far, such talks aren’t taking place, according to Durbin. 

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.), the lead sponsor of the GOP bill and one of the three African American senators, said he is not currently negotiating with Democrats about changes to the bill that could be agreed on before the initial vote. 

“If we don't have the votes on a motion to proceed, that means that politics is more important than restoring confidence in communities of color,” added Scott, the only Senate Republican who is African American. 

Scott separately told reporters that it was his “understanding” that “Democrats have been told that they are not allowed to get on this bill.” 

House Democrats appear unlikely to make broad changes to their bill to win over Republicans ahead of next week’s vote. But Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas MORE (D-Calif.) did say that she was going to try to negotiate with Republicans on a potential amendment offered by Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D) on requiring federal law enforcement to record interviews. 

“I'm hoping …  that we can work with Mr. Armstrong between now and the floor to get clarity on that aspect of the amendment. Because it would strengthen the bill,” Lofgren said during an hours-long Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday on the House bill. 

At other times, frustration boiled over Wednesday as lawmakers traded barbs over their respective bills. 

Durbin sparked backlash from Republicans, including Scott, when, during a floor speech, he said of police reform “let's not do something that is a token, half-hearted approach.” Durbin, according to a spokeswoman, apologized to Scott. 

But Scott also responded from the Senate floor later Wednesday saying that the remark “hurts my soul.” 

“Shame on us. Shame on us if we are unwilling to have a serious conversation about a serious issue that in my opinion is a greater threat to this nation than perhaps anything we’ve seen because we’ve ever solved it, because we’re all having political points,” he added. 

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