Police reform in limbo after Senate setback

The Senate on Wednesday threw the chances of a police reform deal into limbo, raising the likelihood that no agreement is able to pass Congress.

The prospects for police reform legislation becoming law this year were dealt a significant setback after Senate Democrats blocked a GOP proposal from advancing.

The procedural vote leaves no clear path to a deal, with senators acknowledging they don’t know how to break the impasse. 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.

For now, the Senate is moving on, with the chamber expected to take up and debate a mammoth defense bill up until they leave by next Friday for a two-week July 4 break.

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

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, noted that Republicans could force another vote on police reform under a procedural tactic deployed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But asked if there were negotiations going on to break the stalemate in the near future, he acknowledged “not at the moment.”

The partisan battle comes nearly a month after George 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.

The House is set to pass its own bill largely along party lines on Thursday that would make sweeping reforms to the law enforcement system after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

But that legislation — which would overhaul a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits, curb the use of no-knock warrants and bans the use of chokeholds by federal law enforcement — is considered a non-starter in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Democrats feel like public sentiment is on their side. And giving them more political cover to block the bill, nearly 190 civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urged the Senate to reject starting debate on the legislation. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted that Republicans would feel public pressure to come to the negotiating table.

“Mitch McConnell has a way of trying to bully us around … and if past is prologue, all this year and last year when he tried on a major issue, our caucus held together and each time he came back,” Schumer told reporters. “I believe that the Republican Party sees the handwriting on the wall.” 

Asked if he thought a bill could get done this Congress, Schumer added that he thought there was “a better chance than people think.”

Democrats are urging for either the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up police reform legislation or for a bipartisan working group to be put together to try to break the impasse. Going through committee could allow for amendments to be approved, or not, with a simple majority unlike on the Senate floor, where Democrats expected they would need 60 votes.

“I think we ought to have a try at it. … Put both bills before the committee, we might have some common ground,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). 

But Graham signaled his panel was unlikely to take the issue up, telling reporters that he wanted to debate a bill on the Senate floor. He added that he thought going through his panel was unlikely to end the stalemate.

“I think you’ve got the same problem,” he said, asked about taking it through his committee.

Unlike on previous big social issues there, does not appear to be a bipartisan group ready to try to break the deadlock, though senators acknowledge they’ve had conversations. Graham, Durbin and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) met Tuesday, in a meeting that both sides signaled did not move the Senate closer to a deal.

A source familiar with the matter described it as a “formality” ahead of the failed procedural vote. Scott said there was not “discernible” progress.

Republicans, after Wednesday’s vote, are showing no signs of backing away from their strategy of using Scott’s bill as their base for action on the Senate floor, appearing to reject talk from Democrats of trying to convene a bipartisan group to work out a new deal.

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

The Republican bill — spearheaded by Scott, 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.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added that he hoped an agreement could be found but said, “I can’t imagine that we could offer much more than Senator Scott and the leader have already offered.”

Instead, frustration was running high in the Senate after the failed vote, underscoring the political tensions complicating any chance of a deal on police reform.

“When this bill is gone and next week we’re on the DOD or something else, we’ll forget about this. We’ll move on. People will forget about it,” Scott said. “And you know what’s going to happen? Something bad.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was on the floor listening to Scott’s speech, countered that the Senate’s debate on police reform was “only over for those who want it to be over.”

“We tried it the wrong way,” he added. “Let’s try it the right way.”

Tags Angus King Chuck Schumer Cory Booker Dick Durbin doug jones Joe Manchin John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt Tim Kaine Tim Scott

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