Gridlock mires chances of police reform deal
Police reform legislation is hitting a wall on Capitol Hill.
The gridlock, paired with the looming election, raises the prospects that lawmakers will fail to send a police bill to President Trump’s desk this year.
Congress has been under intense pressure to act since George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police sparked widespread protests and calls to end systemic racism and police brutality.
The House passed a sweeping reform bill Thursday night, but that measure is going nowhere in the Senate, which is mired in its own partisan standoff.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said passing police reform “seems to be” dead in the Senate after most Democrats blocked a bill spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black Republican senator, from moving forward.
“I don’t know how you do something,” Graham told reporters. “It’s a shame, but we are where we are.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) added that he believes Congress has likely missed its moment to pass legislation in the wake of Floyd’s death. The Senate voted on Thursday to start debate on a mammoth defense policy bill that will eat up its schedule until a two-week break that starts July 3.
“I’d say it’s on the back burner for a good while because I don’t think there would be any attempt to do anything else when you’ve kind of put the quietus on the process,” Braun said.
Neither side of the Capitol is ready to throw in the towel completely as lawmakers continue to face calls to show they can respond to the anger and protests over law enforcement practices nationwide.
But there is no sign of a detente on the horizon. If a deal is going to be found, lawmakers argue, it will be because the other party shifted its strategy.
“It’s really up to the Democrats. … They have to come to the table on something,” Scott said. “The Democrats cannot hold every single card.”
Asked if he was worried about a loss of momentum, Scott replied that it was “dissipating as we speak.”
Each chamber took a largely partisan approach with their respective police reform measures, prompting House Republicans and Senate Democrats to argue it was all but impossible to end up with a bipartisan bill.
In the House, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted down all GOP attempts to change the bill earlier this month before passing it without further changes on Thursday night. Meanwhile, the working group put together by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) consisted only of Republicans, with the GOP leader indicating he wouldn’t negotiate with Democrats until they voted to let the bill come up for debate.
The result was two bills with significant sticking points, including divisions over a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits, the use of no-knock warrants and how to ban chokeholds.
“I think we wanted to have a bill that obviously represented the views of the Republican senators,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill in a recent interview about the GOP strategy.
But those tactics have frustrated Democrats, who accused McConnell of trying to “bully” them into accepting the legislation without giving them a realistic shot at being able to change it.
“They made it very clear that they were not willing to improve the bill that they wrote themselves,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s very consistent with how McConnell functions.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are banking on their strategy paying off. They’ve passed their legislative wish-list and are now hoping that public pressure — derived from the national unrest — will give reluctant Republicans no choice but to act on measures that go further than Scott’s bill.
“When we pass this bill, the Senate will have a choice: to honor George Floyd’s life or to do nothing,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said earlier this week.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of the House measure, has been more optimistic than most. She noted that much of the GOP criticism has been focused on the liberal push to defund the police — an idea that’s been rejected by Democratic leaders and is nowhere to be found in their bill.
“I have a long list of my Republican colleagues from Judiciary who expressed opposition to all sorts of things in the hearing — but not the bill,” Bass said. “So I think that leaves us a basis from which to talk. And so that’s what I plan to do.”
But there have been no talks this week that suggest a bipartisan deal is on the horizon.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), one of the key proponents of the Democratic proposal in the Senate, said she had not talked with any Republicans on Thursday about the bill. Bass added that she had not been part of talks with Scott or other Senate Republicans. And Graham has all but closed the door to Democrats’ suggestion of bringing a bill up in the Judiciary Committee.
Senate Republicans say they have little interest in changing their negotiating stance, which is to bring up Scott’s bill, with the South Carolina Republican focused on trying to find an additional four Democrats to vote to start debate on his bill.
An attempt to end debate on bringing the bill to the floor fell short of the 60 votes needed to proceed. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Angus King (I-Maine) voted with Republicans to try to advance the bill on Wednesday.
With nothing to show for their efforts, lawmakers are honing their respective pitches to voters about Congress’s inability to pass police reform legislation as the November election casts an increasingly long shadow over the Capitol.
Democrats, while stressing that they still want to negotiate, have accused McConnell of setting up a partisan process that gives Republicans the opportunity to say they had a vote but then blame Democrats for its failure and move on.
“Let me be very clear: The debate on policing reform is only over for those who want it to be over. And maybe those who never truly wanted this debate in the first place,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Durbin added that “some of them want it to be over. They’ve got their vote, now they don’t want to face an alternative.”
But Republicans, frustrated by Wednesday’s setback, say they believe Democrats want to keep police reform on the table for November, when they will try to win back the White House and Senate.
“I think there are a number of bills that the minority in the Senate would rather have the issue than have a solution. I think this is one of them, I think DACA is one of them, and I think there are others,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection, said he believes Democrats are trying to “deny any progress on police reforms that either the president or Republicans could claim credit for.”
“I think this is all about the election,” he added.
Mike Lillis contributed.
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