Senate Democrats block GOP policing bill

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a Republican-drafted bill aimed at overhauling the nation’s policing practices amid a national outcry for a systematic transformation of law enforcement — spelling a potential death knell to efforts at revisions at the federal level in an election year.

On a 55-to-45 vote, the legislation written primarily by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., failed to advance in the Senate, where it needed 60 votes to proceed. Most Democratic senators said the bill fell far short of what was needed to meaningfully change policing tactics and was beyond the point of salvageable.

“The Republican majority proposed the legislative equivalent of a fig leaf — something that provides a little cover but no real change,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Wednesday morning. “The harsh fact of the matter is, the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform.”

The failed vote came after an impassioned speech by Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, who said his bill was an opportunity to say “not only do we hear you, not only do we see you, we are responding to your pain.”

The gridlock on Capitol Hill stands in contrast to the growing public support for policing changes in the four weeks since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody, galvanized the nation with demands for racial justice. A national Associated Press-NORC survey conducted this month found a sweeping desire nationwide for police policy change, with clear majorities across racial and party lines supporting changes such as requiring officers to wear body cameras and prosecuting those who use excessive force.

Democrats argued that had Republicans wanted to produce a substantive, bipartisan police proposal, they would have started with a template that included more input from them before letting the bill advance on the floor. In private, Democrats also spoke of their deep distrust of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and questioned whether he wanted a bipartisan bill to pass the Senate.

But Republicans repeatedly noted that Democrats could try to amend the bill on the Senate floor, and GOP senators privately offered amendment votes meant to address several criticisms of the bill that Schumer, and Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., laid out in a letter to McConnell on Tuesday. The Democrats turned down that offer, according to two GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss procedural deliberations, and also rejected a subsequent offer of more amendment votes.

Scott privately told Democrats that if they did not get votes on amendments they sought, that he, too, would help them filibuster his own bill again before it proceeds to a final vote, according to one of the officials.

“We’re literally arguing about whether to stop arguing about whether to start arguing about something else,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “Nobody thought the first offer from the Republican side was going to be the final product that traveled out of the Senate.”

Three members of the Democratic caucus broke ranks and voted to advance the bill — Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Angus King, I-Maine.

The Senate GOP plan incorporates a number of Democratic proposals, such as legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and a national policing commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the U.S. criminal justice system.

It also withholds federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies that don’t proactively bar the practice of chokeholds. It also calls on states and localities to report to the Justice Department when so-called “no-knock warrants” are used, and it would punish those that do not do so by withholding federal funding.

On one major point of dissension between the parties, the Republican bill leaves intact the “qualified immunity” standard that Democrats want to erode, making it easier for law enforcement officials to be sued for misconduct.

The Democratic-controlled House plans to vote this week on a more expansive bill that would mandate several changes, including a federal ban on chokeholds, prohibitions on no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and establishment of a national database to track police misconduct and make it easier to hold officers accountable in civil and criminal court for misconduct.

McConnell said if the Senate bill does not advance Wednesday, he will take procedural steps to tee it up again in the future. Republicans later noted that Democrats can exert significant influence on the progress of the bill, because it would require 60 votes not just to start work on the legislation but also, separately, to move it to a final passage vote.

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