Police reform hits impasse in Senate

The Senate is headed for a stalemate on police reform with the prospects for a bipartisan deal unraveling ahead of a Wednesday vote.

Almost a month after George Floyd’s death sparked calls for changes to the country’s law enforcement system, senators appear to be at an impasse with no obvious path toward breaking the logjam.

Democrats, absent an eleventh-hour breakthrough, are prepared to block the GOP police reform bill amid frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the potential amendment process.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that the Republican measure — spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black GOP senator — would not get the 60 votes needed to overcome a key procedural hurdle.

“The bill, as has been outlined by my colleagues, is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “It will never get 60 votes in the Senate. … It is a cul-de-sac cynically designed by Leader McConnell so that he can say that he can do something but do nothing.”

Only one Democratic senator — Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), a red-state Democrat who faces a difficult election in November — has shown interest in being one of the 60 votes needed to start floor debate on the bill.

Other Democrats sent their strongest signal yet that they would block the bill and urged McConnell to come to the negotiating table on a potential bipartisan measure.

Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), the two Black Democratic senators, sent McConnell a letter, calling the GOP bill “not salvageable.”

“Bringing the JUSTICE Act to the floor of the Senate is a woefully inadequate response, and we urge you to bring meaningful legislation to the floor for a vote,” they wrote.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, added that a potential offramp could be to either send a bill through the Judiciary Committee or create a bipartisan group to try to hash out a deal.

“It appears … that this is not McConnell’s plan,” Durbin said.

Republicans quickly rejected Durbin’s suggestion out of hand, indicating they will move forward with the Wednesday vote that is set to take place around noon.

McConnell argued that reporters shouldn’t fall for “nonsense,” adding that if Democrats didn’t support the GOP bill, they could block the Senate from ending debate, a move that also requires 60 votes.

“They don’t have to trust me when I say I want an open amendment process, I mean it. But if they don’t feel like they’ve had fair treatment, their remedy is to refuse to finish the bill,” he said.

Scott added that if Democrats weren’t willing to advance the GOP bill on Wednesday, “that tells me that this is already over.”

Prospects for an agreement that could defuse the Senate’s fight over police reform before the Wednesday vote appear bleak.

Speculation about a potential last-minute deal spiked Tuesday afternoon when Scott and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) met with Durbin, Booker and Harris.

But a source familiar with the conversation told The Hill that they were not actively pitching or discussing a potential agreement, calling the meeting a “formality.”

Democrats “outlined the objections they included in the letter they sent to McConnell today. Explained why the bill was unsalvageable,” the source added.

Asked if there was progress made in the meeting, Scott replied: “Not that was discernible, no.”

Scott said he repeatedly tried to contact Harris, one of the lead sponsors of a joint Senate-House Democratic police reform bill, but previously failed to connect.

“I’ve tried to touch base with her on several occasions. We’ve been playing phone tag,” Scott said, noting that four different meetings that had been scheduled “kept getting canceled.”

Scott said he has had exhaustive conversations with Booker but didn’t seem optimistic that a breakthrough is possible anytime soon.

“The fact of the matter is if it’s not working, then what is it that’s not working is a question you should be asking them, not me,” Scott said, adding that Republicans have “done what we can do to put this bill in a position to be successful. … What else are we supposed to do?”

McConnell told reporters that if Democrats block the Republican bill Wednesday, he will use a procedural tactic that would allow him to bring it back up for a second vote.

But Republicans, including close allies of the GOP leader, cast doubt that a failed vote would push both sides to the negotiating table.

“There probably is no path forward in this Congress if they block debate tomorrow,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, added that he wasn’t interested in negotiating with “hostage takers.”

Rubio, who attended the meeting with Democrats, said he doesn’t know what the path forward would be if the motion to begin debate fails.

“I don’t know what happens after that,” he said. “The only thing that can become law is something that the Senate passes and that originates from here.”

House Democrats have scheduled a vote for their police reform package on Thursday. It’s expected to pass on a largely party-line vote.

Senators spent much of Tuesday trading accusations of playing politics ahead of the 2020 election, where both the White House and Senate are up for grabs.

Cornyn predicted that Democrats would face political consequences if they block the GOP bill.

“I think there’s a price to be paid for it,” he said. “Hopefully there will be a backlash of public opinion.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) added that he believed Democrats were “grandstanding” because “they would rather have the issue to campaign on than finding a solution for the American people.”

But Democrats believe they have public sentiment on their side after weeks of protests and demands to overhaul law enforcement. On Tuesday, 138 civil rights and human rights organizations sent a letter to the Senate urging them to oppose the GOP bill.

Schumer predicted that McConnell would be forced to come to the negotiating table, though he didn’t give a timeline.

“The pressure will continue to mount on them. This isn’t going away,” he said. “We believe the Republicans will face such pressure when they see the House passed a bill, their process has failed [on] passing a bill in the Senate that they will come to the table.”

Asked what he thought was driving McConnell’s strategy, Durbin said it was President Trump.

“I think they’ve gone as far as they think they can politically go and defend the president’s position and if they go any further he will turn on them,” Durbin said. “McConnell is the great enabler for Trump but he’s also always watching carefully that he doesn’t cross him in terms of his political strategy.”

Tags Chuck Schumer Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump doug jones John Barrasso John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt Tim Scott

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