The U.S. Senate is headed toward a standoff on an attempt to legislate an overhaul of U.S. policing practices, with Democrats poised to block debate on a GOP plan they say is too narrow to adequately address a growing national crisis over racial inequities.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Republican measure “deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed” as he demanded the GOP negotiate a stronger bipartisan bill.
His announcement that Democrats would withhold support for the GOP plan came just one day after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell locked in a vote Wednesday to begin debate on the GOP-drafted measure with promises it could be amended.
President Donald Trump, who has rejected the idea of systemic racism among police and called protesters “terrorists,” told an audience in Phoenix Tuesday that “we don’t back down from left-wing bullies.”
“We believe in law and order, we support the men and women of law enforcement, and we stand with the citizens” throughout the U.S. “who wish to live in safety, security, dignity and peace,” Trump said.
Democrats are placing an election-year bet that they will gain the upper hand in negotiations on a policing bill by blocking it rather than trying to change it on the floor in the Senate. But they risk being blamed for standing in the way of progress on addressing racial bias in policing.
The protests and unrest nationwide that unfolded after the May 25 killing of a Black man, George Floyd, while in custody of Minneapolis police have raised pressure on both parties to act. But with the Senate nearing a two-week July recess with another pandemic stimulus measure likely on the table when they return, the stalemate risks pushing policing off the agenda until after the November elections.
“The Republican majority has given the Senate a bad bill and proposed no credible way to sufficiently improve it,” Schumer said, adding that leading civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, support blocking the GOP bill.
Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to advance the legislation and Republicans have only 53.
McConnell dismissed as “nonsense” Democratic complaints that they would be at a disadvantage in trying to amend the legislation. He said he will keep the option of returning to police reform later this year.
The House is expected on Thursday to pass a more stringent policing bill introduced by Democrats in both chambers.
That bill and the Senate GOP measure, introduced by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, both attempt to boost accountability and training for police officers and make lynching a federal crime for the first time. Both bills would establish a federal database to track use-of-force incidents involving state and local police officers, and withhold some federal funds from those that don’t participate.
But they take different approaches to the use of chokeholds on suspects, no-knock warrants in drug cases, use of force, and body cameras.
A major sticking point is whether to continue protecting police officers from lawsuits. Democrats want to end the judicial doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields individual officers from being sued for damages unless they violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. The GOP bill doesn’t address that issue.
McConnell yesterday defended leaving that out, arguing that boosting officer liability could cause them to hesitate in risky situations and could hamper police department recruiting.
“Imagine if you’re thinking about becoming a police officer and you think you’re going to be personally liable for every fracas you try to break up,” he said.
Republicans in both chambers also are balking at other portions of the Democratic proposal, including its ban on no-knock warrants in drug cases, as was used before the March police killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black Louisville, Kentucky, woman who was shot dead by white officers. Some Republicans say officers could be at risk because some drug kingpins are heavily armed.
Both parties also disagree about when adverse information about officers should be entered into a proposed national police misconduct database.
Schumer and Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey are sponsoring the Senate version of House Democrats’ bill. Each said on Tuesday that they didn’t believe Democrats could pull over enough Republican votes to add an officer liability provision or get any other significant changes like limits on providing military equipment to state and local police departments.
Booker said the GOP bill relies too heavily on gathering data from police departments on things like the use of no-knock arrest warrants in drug cases, rather than taking tougher action like banning the use of those warrants. He said it doesn’t go far enough in working to end the use of chokeholds on detainees.
“The American people are not in the streets chanting we want more data, we want more data,” Booker said on the Senate floor. “The American people are not in the streets chanting give us a commission, give us a commission.”
“Don’t anyone dare suggest we are standing in the way of progress,” Harris said, adding that the GOP bill “has been thrown out to pay lip service” to the issue without taking actions that would save lives.
Despite the setback, some lawmakers insist there’s still a chance legislation could eventually advance. Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said legislation could move through the Senate Judiciary Committee or be drafted by a group of senators from both parties.
Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican who chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said leaders in both parties will be under growing pressure from their rank and file to act.
“It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway,” he said. “It is so beneath the institution of Congress to miss this opportunity.”
Reed said both sides want to make lynching a federal crime and want to provide good anti-bias training for officers. Republicans might be willing to go further in curbing use of chokeholds, he added, and perhaps Democrats could agree that only police misconduct claims that went through due-process reviews could be entered in a federal database.
“Maybe this issue is one where you say 80% is not a defeat, and you look at all the other things that have been put together to improve the situation from a legislative perspective and you declare victory and move forward,” Reed said.
— With assistance by Josh Wingrove
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