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Democrats face make-or-break moment on police reform

Democrats are facing a make-or-break moment as the Senate barrels toward a showdown this week on police reform legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (R-Ky.) is vowing to force a vote on the GOP bill, a move that will require Democrats to make a decision on their position after days of privately debating their strategy.

The Senate fight is expected to come to a head Wednesday, when Republicans will seek the 60 votes needed to advance a bill spearheaded by 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 (S.C.), the only Black Republican senator. As of Monday evening, Republicans did not have the votes.

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Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms MORE (D-N.Y.) railed against the GOP measure Monday, calling it “piecemeal and halfhearted.”

“The longer you look at the Republican policing reform effort, the more obvious the shortcoming and deficiencies,” Schumer said. “If we pass a bill that’s ineffective, and the killings continue and police departments resist change and there is no accountability, the wound in our society will not close, it will fester.”

Democrats want to show they are responding to calls for reforms after George Floyd’s death during a Minneapolis police arrest. Allowing Scott’s bill to advance could give them the opportunity to try to change it and force Republicans to go on the record on issues like no-knock warrants and qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from civil lawsuits.

But they would open themselves up to fierce backlash on the left if they agree to take up the legislation without a commitment from McConnell to allow for votes on specific amendments. Though the GOP leader has signaled he is open to potential amendments, he hasn’t committed to a deal on votes, which could easily get bogged down by one senator once the bill is on the floor.

“At this point there is no clarity on what we’re being offered by Sen. McConnell procedurally. All he’s offered is a motion to proceed — take it or leave it,” Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Congress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms MORE (D-Ill.) told reporters after a Democratic leadership call.

Durbin argued that McConnell had initially taken a similar stance in the March coronavirus negotiations and the “best thing” Democrats did was reject McConnell’s opening offer. Durbin declined to say whether Democrats would try a similar tactic on police reform. He also would not say how he will vote Wednesday.

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Democrats have remained united on their message that the GOP bill falls short of the response they believe the country is demanding. Floyd’s killing on May 25 has been met with calls to overhaul the country’s law enforcement system and end police brutality and racial injustice.

Hanging over that debate is the 2020 election, where both the Senate and White House are up for grabs. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has led President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE in several national polls, and political handicappers believe Democrats are within striking distance of recapturing the Senate majority.

Lara Bazelon, a former public defender and director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinical Programs at the University of San Francisco School of Law, warned Democrats against compromising on key issues.

“This is not a time to compromise with people like Tim Scott and the Republicans in the Senate who are not interested in meaningful reform whatsoever,” she said.

“If you can’t get a decent bill — meaning, most of what you’re asking for — then wait until 2021 and hopefully the composition of the Senate will be different, because [Scott’s bill] is unacceptable on its face,” she added.

Congressional Democrats offered their own police reform package earlier this month before Scott introduced his. Though the two bills have several areas of overlap, there are also significant differences.

Democrats want to revamp qualified immunity, an issue the GOP bill doesn’t address.

They also want to ban no-knock warrants in drug cases, while Scott’s bill focuses more on compiling data on the practice.

Democrats have also criticized Republicans for not including a federal ban on chokeholds, something their bill would do. The GOP bill instead seeks to incentivize state and local governments to prohibit chokeholds by blocking some federal law enforcement grants to jurisdictions that allow them.

“The Republican bill doesn’t even truly ban chokeholds or no-knock warrants. It leaves major loopholes when it comes to chokeholds. ... Allowing police to use chokeholds whenever they say that deadly force is necessary is not going to save lives,” Schumer said Monday. 

Republicans say that if Democrats want to get a police reform bill to Trump’s desk, the first step is to start debate on the GOP proposal. And they could pick up some Democratic votes Wednesday.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is facing a tough race in November, said he was “inclined” to vote to proceed to debate on the GOP bill, though he stressed he had not made a decision about whether he would support the measure if it eventually receives a final vote.

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“There’s a lot of discussion about that in the caucus. ... Right now I’m inclined to vote to proceed to debate the bill,” Jones said on MSNBC’s “Kasie DC.”

“I think there needs to be an open discussion about this,” he added. “That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily vote for the final passage on that bill.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Progressives push for direct payments to be included in COVID-19 relief deal Rubio and Ocasio-Cortez spar on Twitter: 'Work more, tweet less' MORE (D-W.Va.) told The Hill on Monday that he was undecided, noting that the caucus was still debating the issue.

Spokespeople for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has had high-profile breaks with her party since joining the Senate in 2019, did not respond to a request for comment Monday about the upcoming vote.

But, absent several more Democrats breaking ranks, that’s not enough to get Republicans over the 60-vote hurdle.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (D-Calif.) said late last week she would like to see both the House and Senate pass their respective bills.

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“We’d like to end up in conference because that’s how Congress works its will. The House acts, the Senate acts, and you go to conferences and try to reconcile the legislation,” she told reporters.

Pelosi, however, said she wouldn’t tell Senate Democrats how to proceed.

“One of the things you should know about our interaction is they don’t tell me what to do and I don’t tell them what to do,” she said.

The House will vote on the Democratic bill Thursday, where it’s expected to pass along party lines.

Pelosi’s comments caught the attention of Senate Republican leaders, who tried to paint Senate Democrats as out of step with Pelosi.

“Sen. Scott and Senate Republicans are interested in making a law. The president and the administration want to make a law. And even the Democratic House leadership apparently would be happy to see a conference committee,” McConnell said.

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“So maybe the only group left in Washington that are reportedly agonizing over whether to block a discussion of police reform or let it proceed seem to be our Senate Democratic colleagues,” he added.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Congress faces late-year logjam The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Barr splits with Trump on election; pardon controversy MORE (R-Mo.), mentioning Pelosi’s comments, told reporters: “I hope there was a message there.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.