Parties collide over police reform

The partisan battle over police reform hits a critical juncture on Wednesday, when House Democrats will tee up their sweeping reform package for a floor vote and Senate Republicans unveil a similar but likely less far-reaching alternative. 

Both parties are facing heavy pressure to revamp the nation’s law enforcement culture after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody last month. And the competing proposals are each designed to assuage the historic public outcry that’s followed, as marchers have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demand an end to racial profiling and police brutality.

While the goals are the same, however, the partisan approaches are not. And to reach an agreement, the sides have plenty of work to do under the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny and the reluctant gaze of a president who’s been wary to police the police. 

As a result, the political effects of the coming debate may reverberate well beyond the summer, with voters seeming increasingly likely to make racial justice a major issue at the polls in November. 

With so much at stake, party leaders are carving out boundaries even before the formal negotiations begin.

House Democrats “want to federalize all of these issues — that’s a non-starter. The House version is going nowhere in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday after his weekly lunch with Republicans. “It’s basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington. We have no interest in that.”

Democrats in the House last week unveiled a broad-based reform package, which the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up Wednesday, setting the stage for a vote of the full House next week. 

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the lead sponsor of the bill, said she’s expecting no support from Judiciary Republicans on Wednesday, but hopes a few GOP lawmakers will come around to backing the bill when it hits the floor next week. 

“I would love to say we would have Republican support that fast, but I do think it’s going to take them a little time,” she said in an interview with Washington Post Live. 

The quick action by House Democrats sent Senate Republicans scrambling to craft their own response. Republicans have struggled with race-related issues under President Trump, who has embraced a “law and order” mantra and attacked Black Lives Matter protesters as lawless “thugs.” GOP leaders turned to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott to take the lead. He’s the only black Republican senator, and he says he’s personally experienced racial profiling by police. 

The Scott package, set to be unveiled Wednesday morning, is similar to the House bill in many respects: It calls for cutting federal funding for local and state police departments that do not ban chokeholds; boosts funding for police body cameras; and incentivizes local agencies to report use-of-force incidents that cause death or serious injury to the FBI.

But unlike the House package, Scott said his bill would not end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that largely prevents citizens from suing officers for misconduct in the line of duty. Scott has called the Democratic provision a “poison pill.”

As he worked to build support among his GOP colleagues, Scott was also trying to coordinate with the White House, which was pushing its own set of reforms. In the Rose Garden on Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order that would incentivize police departments to train their officers better about use of force and create a database to track officer misconduct.

But Trump also used the Rose Garden moment to condemn the looters who have taken advantage of the Floyd protests and slam “radical” progressives trying to “defund, dismantle and dissolve” police departments. 

“Without police, there is chaos; without law, there is anarchy; and without safety there is catastrophe,” said Trump, flanked by law enforcement officials.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Judiciary Committee chairman who will lead Wednesday’s markup, said Trump’s order neglects accountability measures for police misconduct. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed Trump’s order as “weak,” saying it “falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality that is murdering hundreds of black Americans.”

Opinion polls since Floyd’s death have shown a rapid shift in public sentiment against police tactics when it comes to issues of race. And after initially predicting the Senate would not vote on the Scott package until after the two-week Fourth of July recess, GOP leaders shifted course Tuesday and said the legislation could come to the floor as soon as next week. Speaking to reporters, McConnell indicated he would not negotiate with Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Scott package before bringing it to the floor for a procedural vote and dared Democrats to filibuster it.

“What I envision here is an effort to make a law, and I’m fully aware that it takes 60 votes to get something out of the Senate,” McConnell said. “It will really be up to them to decide how they want to handle this. They can either shoot it down as insufficient or be willing to take the risk to go to the bill and see what changes, if any, we can all agree to in order to get to 60.”

House Republicans have been making suggestions to Scott and are expected to unveil a companion bill soon that will be authored by Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.).

But on Wednesday, Republicans on the Judiciary panel will try to change the Democratic bill by offering a slew of amendments. Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.), for example, will put forth his amendment withholding federal grant money from police departments that have certain collective-bargaining provisions, including delaying officer interviews after alleged misconduct or giving accused officers access to evidence before questioning.

Other Republicans are likely to pursue amendments restoring qualified immunity protections, which they say are needed to shield law enforcers from rampant litigation. 

It is doubtful Democrats will agree to adopt any significant changes offered by Republicans as part of their final package. Still, Democratic leaders are already signaling a willingness to compromise to get something through Congress and on the president’s desk in response to the historic protests demanding change.

“Now, it’s not going to be everything that I want. It won’t be everything that all members of the Congressional Black Caucus would want,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, told MSNBC. “But hopefully it will be significant enough for us to call it a giant step forward.”

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Ben Cline Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Jerrold Nadler Karen Bass Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pete Stauber police reform Tim Scott

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