House Democrats on Wednesday will take the first step toward enacting a sweeping police reform bill, with lawmakers in both parties hopeful for a deal even as the two sides remain far from reaching a compromise.
Senior Democrats and Republicans are hoping to get something to President Donald Trump’s desk within the next few weeks, worrying that they’ll lose momentum if the negotiations drag beyond the July 4th holiday.
And with protests over racial injustice and police brutality still gripping dozens of cities, both parties have moved aggressively to present some kind of legislative framework to address long-ignored problems in policing. But there’s also been little incentive for the two parties to broker a compromise as they each look to lay down their respective markers on reform.
“Truth be told, if these conversations had started in the very beginning, I think my answer would be much more affirmative,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has privately discussed the legislation with several Republicans, said in an interview. “My unfortunate belief is that absent collaboration from the very beginning, it makes it incredibly difficult.”
Still, Phillips, noted: “There’s a lot of common ground right now, my hope is that we at least focus on the common ground and accomplish that now.”
The House Judiciary Committee will take up the landmark legislation in a marathon session starting Wednesday morning, three weeks after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis officers has galvanized both sides of Capitol Hill into action. The markup comes one week after the panel heard gripping testimony from Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, who pleaded with lawmakers to “stop the pain” and deliver change.
But both the committee vote Wednesday and the full House vote next week are expected to largely fall along party lines. Democrats have enough support within their caucus to pass the bill on their own, with no interest in softening their proposal to win over Republicans.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, will release their own police reform bill on Wednesday, which is expected to build on Trump’s executive order and could be on the floor as soon as next week, despite earlier predictions that the Senate wouldn’t take up the bill until after July 4.
And leaders in both parties are already publicly bickering. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) slammed Democrats over their bill, which he said was “going nowhere” in the Senate. He said Democrats were seeking to “federalize” the police system and trying to “control everything in Washington.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday offered a pointed rebuttal, calling McConnell’s remarks “disgraceful.”
“For the leader of the Senate to say, 'It's going nowhere, we don't want any of that,' is really disgraceful — and really ignores the concerns of the American people,” Pelosi said on MSNBC. “I feel very, very disappointed by the dangerous statement made by the Republican leader of the Senate.”
Still, lawmakers and aides in both parties say they think there is a path to “yes.” They just aren’t sure how to get there yet.
House Democrats assembled their bill — which would crack down on excessive force and ban chokeholds, enforce strict transparency standards and demand accountability for officer misconduct with a national database to track offenses — about two weeks after Floyd’s death.
Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday, largely limited to encouraging best practices through federal grants. And the normally sluggish Senate is moving quickly on a GOP-led policing bill that builds upon Trump’s actions.
A plan from Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lone African American Republican senator, set to be unveiled Wednesday, would create new reporting requirements on the use of deadly force by officers, and cut off federal funding for local departments that fail to comply. It also would withhold funding for police departments that do not ban the use of chokeholds.
Most Democrats have panned the GOP approach as cosmetic and too limited, while Pelosi dismissed Trump’s executive order Tuesday, saying it “falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality.”
It’s unclear whether Senate Democrats will join Republicans and try to amend their bill.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on the GOP’s police reform bill, saying it would be “premature” to discuss it before it is formally unveiled.
“We haven't even seen the bill yet,” Schumer said. “Let’s wait and see what Tim Scott’s bill is. I have no idea what's in it.”
House Democratic lawmakers and aides say privately that they are open to a compromise that will get a bill to the president’s desk. But they don’t see the point of weakening their negotiating position now by cutting a deal with House Republicans when they’ll likely have to later negotiate with Senate Republicans and possibly even Trump himself.
The politics in both parties have significantly shifted in the weeks since Americans took to the streets across the country to protest Floyd’s death along with the killings of many other unarmed black men and women by police.
Democrats, from the liberal lawmakers who support calls to “defund the police” to centrist in GOP districts, have rallied around a bill that under other circumstances would easily expose the caucus’ ideological divisions. But the united front hasn’t been without missteps.
Just on Wednesday, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) apologized after saying the call to defund the police is “probably one of the worst slogans ever,” vocalizing concerns from many Democrats who worry it could overshadow their police reforms push and give Trump and Republicans a line of attack.
“Saying that’s the worst slogan ever was the dumbest response ever and I shouldn’t have said it and I’m sorry for saying it,” Bass tweeted. “I would never mean to malign a movement of activists who I know are fighting for transformative change.”
And some Republicans have started warming to the idea of banning chokeholds by police, a policy change that would’ve been unfathomable just weeks ago. But the support isn’t universal within the GOP and it’s unclear how far the party is willing to go on the issue.
Senior Democrats, including Bass and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), have privately spoken with several Republicans in recent days as they discussed changes to the package, according to multiple sources. That includes House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and moderates like retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), both of whom have been open to some of Democrats’ ideas.
House Democratic leaders did agree to some fixes to the bill, including language to clarify the contentious “qualified immunity section” so that it is more clearly focused on law enforcement personnel and includes federal law enforcement officers, according to a Democratic source. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, however, previously said Trump wouldn’t support a measure that included qualified immunity.
The amendment would also clarify that the police misconduct registry would make public information like misuse of force and racial profiling, but not mundane complaints like tardiness. It would also limit the use of facial recognition technology from body camera police footage. The technology has come under increased scrutiny for misidentifying individuals and furthering racial profiling.
Democrats are not planning additional changes to their bill at Wednesday’s markup — a condition of support for many of the caucus’s moderates who are afraid that their more liberal colleagues will attempt to pull the bill to the left.
House Republicans, meanwhile, are still planning to unveil their own proposal to curb police brutality, which they’ve been closely developing with their Senate counterparts as well as the White House. That measure — which is being authored by Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) — is expected to be released in the coming days and will serve as a companion to the Senate legislation, according to GOP sources.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are planning to offer dozens of amendments at Wednesday’s markup, with many of them likely to mirror the provisions in Scott’s bill.
McConnell, who plans to announce Wednesday whether the chamber will consider Scott’s bill next week, said he plans to hold an initial procedural vote on the bill, which would require 60 votes — essentially daring Democrats to either block the legislation or support an effort that could lead to amendments of the GOP-authored bill. At least seven Democrats would need to support that process, assuming all 53 Republican senators are on board.
“What I envision here is an effort to make a law,” McConnell said Tuesday, later adding: “It will really be up to them to decide how they want to handle this. They can either shoot it down as insufficient, or be willing to take the risk to go to the bill and see what changes, if any, we can all agree to in order to get to 60.”
Kyle Cheney, Burgess Everett, Marianne Levine and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.