WASHINGTON – Democratic senators blocked a Republican-crafted policing bill from moving forward Wednesday, as both parties accused each other of playing politics amid nationwide calls to reform law enforcement.
Although Republicans control the Senate with 53 seats, they needed 60 votes to end debate and consider amendments to the bill. Just two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, crossed the aisle to vote with the Republicans.
House Democrats plan to vote on their own police reform package Thursday, and in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, Democratic leaders called the GOP bill “so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations.”
Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who has spearheaded the GOP legislation, rejected the idea that the bill he crafted was not a viable starting point for compromise legislation. Speaking on the Senate floor after the vote, Scott offered examples of the concessions he was willing to make and accused Democrats of “playing for presidential politics” in an election year.
“I finally realized what the problem is,” said Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate. “The actual problem is not what is being offered, it is who is offering it.”
Democrats unveiled their reform package, dubbed the Justice in Policing Act, on June 8 as protests swept the country over the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans.
The GOP introduced the similarly named JUSTICE Act a week later, and McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, signaled that he would bypass the usual process of referring the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee and move straight to Wednesday’s procedural vote. That put Senate Democrats in the awkward position of either abandoning their own, more ambitious legislation or appearing to obstruct police reform.
The competing bills overlap in some areas, with both calling for increased data collection on incidents where police use force, incentives for officers to wear body cameras and more training. Both bills would also make lynching a federal crime, an effort Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has previously blocked despite the backing of every other senator.
The bills diverge on several more contentious issues, with the Democratic package banning chokeholds by federal law enforcement officers – a maneuver the GOP bill also bans but defines more narrowly – and classifying their use as a civil rights violation. The Democrats’ bill also would do away with qualified immunity for police, a legal doctrine that shields officers from civil lawsuits, while the Republican bill would not.
Both parties’ proposals rely on conditioning federal grant money on reforms by the country’s more-than 18,000 policing agencies, nearly all of which are controlled at the local or state level. The Democratic bill would ban “no-knock warrants,” which allow police to enter a home without notice, but only by the handful of law enforcement agencies under the federal government’s purview. The GOP bill would require police to report the use of no-knock warrants but does not ban the practice.
House Democrats, who have a safe majority in that chamber, are poised to pass their favored bill Thursday, but McConnell has made clear it will not advance in the Senate. With November’s general election less than five months away, neither party wants to appear to give ground.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., exemplified that stance, calling her party’s legislation “a desperately needed step toward change.”
“Republican leaders want to vote tomorrow on a bill that would largely keep things the same,” Murray wrote, “and that would be completely unacceptable. The Republican bill cannot seriously be considered a starting point if the Senate’s true goals are justice and accountability.”
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a June 17 interview that he wanted to see a compromise, but that “right now, as with almost every issue in Congress, there seems to be a significant roadblock or hurdle that is making that difficult to achieve.”
Crapo and fellow Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch voted for their party’s bill Wednesday, while Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., voted to block it. Despite his support for some federal reforms, Crapo expressed concern about Congress intervening in local law enforcement.
But speaking just before the vote Wednesday, Cantwell argued that federal intervention is needed to effect reforms across the country.
“Are we going to uphold the rights of all Americans, or just some Americans?” she asked. “I think that is the central question of this debate. Are we going to have a strong federal role in protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans to prevent excessive force by police?”
Both parties’ bills fall short of many protesters’ demands, which include shifting funds away from police departments in favor of other public safety initiatives, often using the shorthand “defunding.” Democrats have taken pains to avoid using that term, while Republicans have frequently invoked it, seeking to paint their opponents as radical.
GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, inserted himself into that debate Monday when he introduced a non-binding resolution that calls for jurisdictions that cut police funding to loosen their gun permitting restrictions. As of Wednesday, 14 GOP representatives had signed onto the resolution.
In an interview Tuesday, Fulcher said he was alarmed by the calls to dismantle police departments and wanted to “reframe the debate” about public safety.
“It’s not about law enforcement. It’s about public safety,” he said. “So let’s give at least some attention to the Second Amendment if you’re willing to eliminate your police force. If you’re going to defund your police force, if you’re going to reduce your police force and if you’re going to shift control away from local jurisdictions and towards federal jurisdictions, then you’d better also take a look at the other side of this.”
Fulcher said he also has concerns with the grant-based incentives in the GOP bill, which he worries could exert more influence on states like Idaho that collect less tax revenue.
Members of both parties, however, agree that police are asked to do too much. At a Judiciary Committee hearing June 17, Sen. Lindsey Graham reflected on his privilege as a white man after learning that Scott, his fellow South Carolina Republican, had been repeatedly stopped by police near the Capitol. Graham, the committee chairman, said he was open to negotiation with Democrats, although McConnell chose not to refer the GOP bill to the committee.
By the time Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, stepped to the mic on Wednesday morning, it was clear his party had decided against compromising on the GOP bill. On Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a group of 138 organizations, released a letter calling for lawmakers to oppose the Republicans’ bill.
“I want to ask the American people,” Schumer said, “Who is a better guardian of the civil rights of African Americans when it comes to police reform, the NAACP or Mitch McConnell? If this bill were such a good path forward, why wouldn’t civil rights organizations from one end of America to another say, ‘Go forward, maybe we’ll get something done’?
“Because they know the bill is a ruse and nothing will get done.”
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