A partisan standoff between Senate Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday is likely to quash efforts at sweeping reform to policing practices in the U.S. despite angry protests across the country demanding change in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
Democrats, backed by leading reform activists, demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pull the JUSTICE Act, a policing reform bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. -- the chamber’s lone black Republican -- and open bipartisan negotiations toward a compromise instead.
"We will not meet this moment by holding a floor vote on the JUSTICE Act, nor can we simply amend this bill, which is so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations. This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point," wrote Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and the Senate’s two black Democrats -- Kamala Harris of California and New Jersey’s Cory Booker in a letter to McConnell.
Sen. McConnell, R-Ky., set up a key test vote for Wednesday, but the clash Tuesday made it clear Democrats have no intention of lending their necessary votes in order to begin debate on the GOP bill. McConnell is not expected to pull the Scott bill for negotiations, so the standoff meant nothing was likely to happen in the way of reform ahead of the election.
The GOP leader on Tuesday pushed, instead, for "discussion, debate and votes on amendments" on the GOP bill that leverages federal funds to compel police departments to enact change, like ending controversial practices like chokeholds, increasing the use of body cameras, making lynching a federal hate crime, increasing training and deescalation tactics and establishing commission to study the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases -- a move that could, Scott has said, eventually lead to a ban.
"It is important for us to use the resources that we provide law enforcement in a way to get them -- to compel them towards the direction that we think is in the best interest of the nation, of the communities that they serve, and frankly of the officers themselves," said Scott in an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"We're ready to make a law not just make a point," McConnell said Tuesday. "Tomorrow we'll find out whether our Democratic colleagues share our ambition or whether they choose to duck the issue and leave the country in the lurch."
But Democrats pointed the finger of blame at McConnell for a "political stunt," forcing a vote on a bill Republicans are not likely to agree to alter through amendments.
"There is no escaping the fact that Senate Republicans have drafted a policing bill that is deeply, fundamentally, and irrevocably flawed," Schumer said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday.
Schumer said "it is clear" that the GOP bill cannot get the 60 votes necessary to move forward, accusing McConnell of "creating a cul-de-sac from which no police reform can emerge."
"The Republican bill has been thrown out to give lip service to an issue with nothing substantial in it, that would actually save or would have save any of those lives," said Harris.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter to McConnell and Schumer on Monday calling for a "no" vote on Wednesday, strongly opposing the Scott legislation.
"Communities of color are weary of efforts that pour more funding into police departments to purchase equipment, such as body-worn cameras, and provide the same training to officers while Black and Brown Americans continue to be brutalized, and often killed, at the hands of police," Lisa Cylar Barrett, the group’s director of policy, wrote.
"The American people are not in the streets chanting, ‘We want more data, we want more data’. The American people are not in the streets chanting, ‘Give us a commission. Give us a commission,’" said Booker in a speech Tuesday opposing the Scott bill. "It’s not bold. It’s not courageous...It doesn't challenge us to come together. What it does is guarantee that the cycle of violence in our country, the cycle of the abuse of civil rights, the cycle of death that has so moved so many Americans will continue."
Booker called the Scott bill "shameful," representing merely "a desire to turn a page to point a finger of blame" and said if it were to pass, it would "not be a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’" Congress would be forced back to the policy table "after another Breonna Taylor is murdered in her own home after a no-knock warrant, after another Eric Garner is suffocated to death on a sidewalk with a no-knock warrant."
Harris confronted arguments from pundits that Democratic opposition to the bill was in some way a veiled attempt to prevent passing police reform.
"Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? We are responding to the cries in the street we are taking them seriously and we have proposed a prescription that actually responds to not just their demands but to the specific cases and the bodies that have most recently been buried much less the generations of black bodies that have been buried because of this issue," Harris said. "So don't anyone dare suggest we are standing in the way of progress."
House Democrats plan to pass their own reform bill Thursday -- a bill backed by their Senate counterparts -- that calls for banning chokeholds, carotid holds, no-knock warrants in federal narcotics cases, eliminating qualified immunity that shield police officers from civil lawsuit in most cases, limits military equipment sent to localities, and establishes a national police misconduct database.