McConnell signals concern over changes to qualified immunity in police reform

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (Ky.) signaled concerns on Tuesday about changes to a legal shield for police officers — a major sticking point in bipartisan police reform negotiations on Capitol Hill. 

"The whole problem it seems to me in this whole area of police reform ... is without qualified immunity, how do you get people to do law enforcement work?" McConnell said at a stop in Kentucky. 

"We're grappling with that issue in Washington," McConnell added. 

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McConnell's remarks come amid months of behind-the-scenes negotiations to try to reach a policy reform deal. 

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottHow expanded credit data can help tackle inequities Dems erupt over GOP 'McCarthyism' as senators vet Biden bank watchdog pick Why Democrats' prescription drug pricing provision would have hurt seniors MORE (S.C.), the only Black Senate Republican, is leading the talks with Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerMaternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassFor Democrats it should be about votes, not megaphones Proposed California maps put incumbents in jeopardy Bass calls 'Black pastors' comment during Arbery trial 'despicable' MORE (D-Calif.). They've pointed to June as a key self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement, after passing the one-year mark since George Floyd's murder on May 25 without a deal. 

“I think it’s June or bust,” Scott told reporters last week when asked about a timeline. “I think we have three weeks in June to get this done.” 

The group is still working through two of the biggest sticking points to a deal: qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from being sued, and changes to Section 242, the criminal standard for convicting law enforcement.

"We're still working through that process," Scott said when asked about qualified immunity. 

The House has already twice passed a sweeping bill named after Floyd, a Black man killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck. The bill would ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, overhaul qualified immunity and create a national police misconduct registry.

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But the bill went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate last year, where Democrats blocked a narrower bill offered by Scott that did not overhaul qualified immunity. Democrats, who now have the majority, haven't yet brought up police reform legislation this year. 

McConnell, speaking in Kentucky on Tuesday, teed off against calls from calls from some progressives to "defund the police," describing it as "one of the dumbest ideas ever surfaced by anyone in our country."

He also linked the discussions about making changes to legal protections to reports of an increase across the country in police retirements. 

"If you can't get people to do the work it's going to make it pretty hard," he said. 

And most Republicans are wary of, if not outright opposed to, making changes to qualified immunity. 

"I don't support eliminating qualified immunity," said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHouse passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges McConnell leaves GOP in dark on debt ceiling Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell. "But I'm going to take a lot of my cues from Senator Scott."