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Police reform talks ramp up amid pressure from Biden, families

Police reform talks ramp up amid pressure from Biden, families
© Greg Nash

Police reform talks are heating up on Capitol Hill as lawmakers face growing pressure from President BidenJoe BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart MORE and the families of victims to reach an agreement, nearly a year after negotiations first unraveled.

Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines MORE (D-N.J.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines Republicans can win back control in 2022 — if they don't 'cancel' themselves first MORE (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines Shining a light on COINTELPRO's dangerous legacy MORE (D-Calif.), who have been the core negotiators on police reform, convened a broader bipartisan, bicameral group for the first time Thursday, marking an escalation in the talks.

In addition to the three Black lawmakers, Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinSweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden's internal polling touts public support for immigration reform MORE (D-Ill.), Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Trump critics push new direction for GOP Graham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' MORE (R-S.C.) and House lawmakers including Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerFinancial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted Manchin on infrastructure: 'We're gonna find a bipartisan pathway forward' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (D-N.J.) and Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickBipartisan Senate bill introduced to give gyms B in relief America's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Biden visits local Mexican restaurant to highlight relief program MORE (R-Pa.) joined Thursday's meeting either in person or through Zoom.

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Lawmakers agreed that they were making progress toward a deal and are discussing potential compromise language on sticky issues that derailed police reform last year following George Floyd's murder by a police officer.

“I think we are making progress and I’m really encouraged," Booker told reporters after the meeting, adding that he thought there was "really good momentum" in the talks.

Scott added that he was "optimistic" and they would reconvene "soon." 

"I listen to Karen. I listen to Cory. They listen to me. I think we are still making progress," Scott said. 

Many of the same lawmakers also met with family members of Black men killed by police, including Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd; Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner; and Alissa Findley, the sister of Botham Jean, as the families sought to pressure Congress into taking action on the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.  

The meetings came a day after Biden, during his address to Congress on Wednesday night, also urged lawmakers to get a deal on police reform by the end of next month. 

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"I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate. We need to work together to find a consensus but let us get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd's death," Biden said during his speech.

Negotiators are eyeing May 25, the anniversary of Floyd's death, as a deadline for getting an agreement. 

But they were also careful on Thursday not to stick themselves to a hard cut-off point.

"All of us feel like there's a path forward. Now, of course, staff work. The path forward that gets us across the finish line on the anniversary. And that's what the goal is," Bass told reporters. 

Asked if they were on track for a May deal, she added: "I don't know." 

Scott also sidestepped being locked into a deadline, adding: "I didn't set the May 25 deadline."

Even as negotiators say they are making progress there's still big hurdles to getting an agreement including what to do about qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is a doctrine that protects state and local government officials, including law enforcement, from liability in civil suits unless they violate a person’s clearly established constitutional right. 

The House-passed bill overhauled the legal shield, a change considered a non-starter for many Republicans. 

Bass said there were "several" issues that still need to be resolved and that the immediate future would be focused on staff work with both the House and Senate out of town next week.

"We have to have our staff research any outstanding issues," he said.

Durbin confirmed that they were discussing compromise language. One option that has been publicly floated has been changing qualified immunity so that the law enforcement agency, not the individual officer, is liable. But, Durbin noted, there were various options under discussion.

"It was a positive conversation. There’s work to be done. I think we can achieve our goal," Durbin said.

While admitting there are still "major issues," he said that "there’s trust in that room."