Senate Democrats voted almost unanimously on Wednesday against a Republican policing reform proposal, effectively ending congressional efforts to rein in law enforcement as thousands of protesters continue to flood streets across the country demanding racial justice in the wake of George Floyd's death.
Sixty votes were needed to open debate on the Republican policing reform bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., that sought to offer federal incentives to compel departments to implement best practices, train in deescalation and end controversial tactics -- penalizing those that do not.
But the bill stopped short of implementing federal mandates to curb police use of force and other questionable practices -- like chokeholds and carotid holds -- limiting the transfer of federal military equipment to localities and creating a national police misconduct database, shortcomings Democrats said made the bill "irrevocably flawed."
Republicans fell five votes short of advancing the bill to debate, with all but three Democrats voting against it. Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Maine’s Angus King cast "yes" votes along with all Republicans.
Before the vote, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell urged Democrats to vote to allow "discussion, debate and votes on amendments" on the GOP bill and chided them for their reported reluctance to vote to advance the bill.
"We're ready to make a law not just make a point," McConnell had said of Senate Republicans. On Wednesday, he called the decision of Democrats to block the bill "political nonsense elevated to an art form."
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday called the now-failed Republican policing bill "fundamentally and irrevocably flawed" and said it could not be amended, despite calls from Republicans to allow a debate to go forward.
Schumer called the Republican bill the "legislative equivalent of a fig leaf: something that provides a little cover but no real change."
But a few Democrats broke with their leadership and voted to proceed to debate. Jones said in an interview that the "time is now," on policing reform but recognized that "there’s a good faith belief among Democrats that Sen. McConnell is not acting in good faith."
Manchin told reporters that he bucked his party because "We need to be on this bill and debate it and talk about."
Scott took to the floor following the failed vote to express his remorse that the Senate would not move forward with legislation that he said could have changed the relationship between police and communities of color.
"Today we lost, I lost, a vote on a piece of legislation that would have led to systemic change in the relationship between the communities of color and the law enforcement community," Scott said. "We would have broken the concept in this nation that somehow someway you have to be either for law enforcement or for communities of color. That is a false binary choice."
Democrats have offered their own piece of legislation, the Justice in Policing Act, which is expected to pass out of the House on Thursday. That bill outlaws choke holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases, limits the transfer of military grade equipment to police departments and amends the law to make it easier to prosecute potentially offending officers in court.
McConnell said this bill will not be considered by the Senate.
In an interview with CBS Radio on Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused Senate Republicans of "trying to get away with murder, actually -- the murder of George Floyd."
Pressed on her comments on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Pelosi said she would "absolutely, positively not" apologize for her comment, and said she was referring to leader McConnell when she made it.
McConnell characterized Pelosi’s accusation during his floor remarks Wednesday as political showmanship.
"Are you beginning to see how this game works?" McConnell questioned. "Two weeks ago it was implied the Senate would have blood on our hands if we didn’t take up police reform. Now Democrats say Senator Scott and 48 other Senators have blood on our hands because we are trying to take up police reform."
Senate Democrats' decision to stop the Republican bill from advancing was supported by a variety of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU, as well as the powerful Congressional Black Caucus whose members rarely weigh in on matters before the Senate.
The leader of the Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., called the Republican bill a "watered-down fake reform bill" in a statement Tuesday night urging senators to vote no on proceeding to the legislation.
In emotional speeches yesterday, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., said the Republican bill lacked teeth to drive meaningful change, so much so that it could not be amended.
"We are in a moment of profound possibility but what we do face is it being shut down in the Senate over an impotent bill that fails to meet this moment," Booker said.
On Wednesday, just before the vote that tabled the bill, Scott, the lone African American Republican in the Senate, appealed to Democrats, urging them not to "walk away" from a bill that could send a strong message to communities of color.
"My concern is that our friends on the other side will not take advantage of this opportunity to say to the communities that are suffering we see you, we hear you, we are willing to respond as one body," Scott said.
The political recriminations in this tumultuous election year were likely to foreclose any further policing reform efforts this year, a stark contrast to the momentum for change on the streets in the wake of high profile police confrontations and killings of African Americans -- momentum that is leading to sweeping reform efforts at the state level across the country.
Though this vote likely marks the end of the road for policing reform legislation this year, Sen. McConnell, R-Ky., said he intends to use a procedural move that would allow the bill to be reconsidered at a later time.
On Wednesday, Schumer called on McConnell to create a bipartisan space for additional conversations on how to proceed with policing reform.
Harris, Booker, as well as Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other key leaders met behind closed doors Tuesday suggesting that some bipartisan conversations could be happening behind the scenes. It is unclear, however, what has become of those conversations. Booker told reporters Tuesday that no bipartisan working group had yet been appointed by McConnell.