Democrats block GOP police reform bill amid Senate stalemate

Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a GOP police reform bill, leaving the legislation in limbo as both sides dig in.

The Senate voted 55 to 45 on advancing the measure, falling short of the 60 votes needed. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Angus King (I-Maine) voted with Republicans to try to advance the bill.

With House Democrats expected to pass their own bill Thursday along party lines, the Senate setback cast fresh doubt on whether Congress will be able to pass police reform legislation after protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody.

“If we can’t do it now, I don’t know when we’ll ever do it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The stalemate in the Senate comes nearly a month after Floyd’s death sparked nationwide calls for law enforcement reforms and an end to police brutality and racial injustice, putting intense pressure on Congress to act.

Democrats warned heading into Wednesday’s vote that they viewed the GOP bill as “deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed,” and appeared frustrated that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would not agree to a deal on specific amendments before the initial vote.

“If you present a bill, as Republicans have here in the Senate, that does nothing on accountability and say they are solving or dealing with the problem in even close to an adequate way, they are sadly mistaken,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), calling the GOP bill “weak tea” and “junky.”

The Republican bill — spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black GOP senator — would incentivize state and local police departments to stop using chokeholds by linking a ban to federal law enforcement grants. It also would compile data on the use of force by police and the use of no-knock warrants, impose new penalties for not using body cameras, set requirements on law enforcement records retention and include a separate bill that makes lynching a federal hate crime.

Scott said Wednesday that he agreed to let Democrats try to amend the bill if it overcame Wednesday’s hurdle and was able to come up for debate. 

“Sen. Schumer sent a letter telling … Leader McConnell there are five things in the legislation that needed to be improved. I said, let’s give them the five amendments. I sat down with more senators and they said wait, wait, wait. There’s not just five. There’s 20. I said, how about 20 amendments? And they walked out,” Scott said during a speech after the vote. 

There are deep partisan divisions on the legislation, with Democrats arguing that the GOP bill is too flawed to fix even if the measure overcame Wednesday’s procedural hurdle. They also expected any amendments would have required 60 votes, making it unlikely Democrats could have made significant changes.

The Republican bill does not deal with “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that shields police officers from civil lawsuits. The White House and some Republicans, including Scott, have warned that trying to include changes to that doctrine as part of a larger police reform bill is a “poison pill.” Democrats, however, view qualified immunity as a top priority.

The Senate GOP bill also does not include a federal ban on chokeholds, unlike the House Democratic measure, and it does not curb no-knock warrants, instead adding a provision to collect more data on their use.

“I think I heard from Republicans that … their bill is 70 percent of our bill. That is fundamentally not true,” Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), one of two Black Democratic senators, told reporters.

Democrats believe they have political leverage, pointing to polling that shows support for law enforcement reforms.

Providing them further political cover to block the GOP bill, 183 civil rights groups sent senators a letter this week urging them to vote against allowing it to come up for debate on the Senate floor. And the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) came out in opposition to the Senate GOP legislation as well, calling for bipartisan negotiations instead.

“Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a serious, bipartisan, bicameral debate to address the crisis of racial injustice in policing, the Senate is considering the Justice Act, a completely watered-down fake reform bill,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said in a statement. 

“We urge all Senators to vote no on the motion to proceed to the Justice Act and commit to a good faith negotiation on the provisions put forward by the House in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” she added.

Democrats are betting on public pressure forcing Republicans to come to the negotiating table.

“My prayer is that after this bill fails today, after Leader McConnell’s path reaches it pre-ordained dead end, one he intended to happen, we can start down a path of bipartisanship, real bipartisanship,” Schumer said.

But how, or when, senators would be able to break the logjam remains unclear. They are scheduled to leave for a two-week break by next Friday, and are turning to a mammoth defense bill after Wednesday’s setback.

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

McConnell did switch his vote on Wednesday, a procedural tactic he said would allow him to bring up the vote “should progress be made.” Graham also rejected the idea of taking it up through the Judiciary Committee, saying that “I think you’ve got the same problem.”

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said that Wednesday likely wouldn’t be “the last vote” on police reform, but indicated Republicans view the Scott’s bill as the only path forward.

“Our members are united that Tim Scott put together a really solid bill. It deserves a chance to at least be debated,” Thune said.

Asked if there were negotiations going on that could get a deal, Thune added “not at this moment.”

Instead, congressional leaders spent the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote trading barbs, underscoring the political tensions complicating any chance of a deal on police reform.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), during an interview with CBS News Radio, accused Republicans of “trying to get away with murder” with their bill. Schumer added on Wednesday that Republicans were “so afraid of Donald Trump … that they can’t even bring themselves to bring a bill on the floor that has a modicum of respect for the civil rights community.”

Thune called Pelosi’s remarks a “gratuitous, cheap shot.”

“That’s an insult to a lot of people, namely to Tim Scott,” Thune added. “That was an unfortunate comment … and not helpful to getting toward a solution.”

McConnell also responded, arguing that blocking the GOP bill means Democrats are to blame for the inability of Congress to address police reform.

“The next time another appalling incident makes our nation sick to its stomach with grief and anger yet again, Senate Democrats can explain to the nation why they made sure the Senate did nothing,” McConnell said.

Updated: 1:47 p.m.

Tags Angus King Chuck Schumer Cory Booker Donald Trump doug jones George Floyd Joe Manchin John Thune Karen Bass Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi police reform Roy Blunt Tim Scott

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