Senate GOP policing plan may hold some compromises for Democrats

Republicans eager to put forward a narrower measure, but Democrats don’t want to pare down their own bill

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., talks with reporters about his plans for policing legislation after the Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Building on June 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., talks with reporters about his plans for policing legislation after the Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Building on June 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 9, 2020 at 8:01pm

Senate Republicans, led by South Carolina’s Tim Scott, are putting together their own policing legislation and say they hope to find common ground with Democrats on issues like body cameras, data collection on use of force and training practices to emphasize de-escalation.

House and Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a 134-page policing overhaul bill, which is expected to advance through the House by the end of the month. The House will return to session June 25 and 26, a few days earlier than the scheduled June 30 return date, to consider the legislation, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Tuesday.

[Democrats’ policing overhaul targets prosecution standards, data collection, training]

Senate Republicans, while expressing concerns about the sweeping nature of Democrats’ legislation, seem eager to put forward their own, more narrow plan to respond to outrage over racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“Absolutely, I think it’s important to have a response,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday after the GOP’s weekly policy lunch.

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The Kentucky Republican said he’s asked Scott, the only black GOP senator, to lead a working group in crafting a proposal for the conference to consider. Scott offered some initial ideas during Tuesday’s lunch.

“None of us have had the experience of being an African American in this country and dealing with this discrimination,” McConnell said. “The best way for the Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own. He’s had these experiences; he’s had them since he’s been in the United States Senate,” he said, referring to Scott.

Other Republican senators involved in the working group are Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

Data, body cameras and training

Scott said Republicans are looking for solutions that don’t “create a binary choice between supporting law enforcement and supporting communities of color” and offered reporters a preview of what their proposal will include.

“A part of it has to do with the use of force that leads to death or serious bodily injury, collecting more data,” he said. “Right now, about 40 percent of the police departments are reporting to the DOJ through the FBI. We’d like to see all the agencies report, so we’re going to provide either resources for it or perhaps reduce grants if they don’t.”

Democrats’ legislation would mandate that state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal grant money report all data on use of force to the Justice Department.

Scott said Republicans are also talking about how to encourage law enforcement agencies to use body cameras, through either increasing federal grant funding or penalizing jurisdictions that don’t use them.

The Democratic proposal requires that federal uniformed police officers wear body cameras and says jurisdictions receiving federal funds must also mandate body camera use.

Scott also mentioned directing funding and resources toward de-escalation training and “perhaps bias training.”

Democrats’ bill goes a bit further, as it mandates that federal law enforcement and state and local law enforcement receiving federal grant money conduct racial and religious bias training and specifies that deadly force can only be used as last resort after de-escalation techniques.

One thing Republicans are discussing that Democrats do not have in their bill is establishing a national commission to study policing best practices.

Cornyn said he and Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters have a bill to create a national criminal justice commission. It passed the Senate in December 2018 and did not get taken up by the House before the session ended. The senators reintroduced the bill last year.

“It would be an umbrella study for 18 months and then make recommendations like the 9/11 Commission back to us on the whole breadth and depth of criminal justice issues, including policing issues,” he said. “And rather than just sort of try to do something quick, which is narrowly focused, it strikes me as that will be useful. We haven’t done it in the United States since 1965.”

Problem areas

Several Republicans left the lunch saying that Scott had some good ideas, but they declined to get into specifics. A few offered some areas that they’d like to stay away from in any measure.

“What is not productive at all is removing the ability of police to get warrants, restricting legal protections for police, taking away their ability to get the protective equipment they need or defunding them,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said.

Oklahoma GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe went even further, saying he would oppose “anything that would reflect and impose on the law enforcement officers in America that they’re not doing their job.”

An overarching concern Republicans raised about the Democrats’ proposal is that it goes too far in trying to federalize policing when most decisions about how to run police departments should be made at the state and local levels. For example, Democrats’ legislation would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and withhold grant funding for state and local jurisdictions that don’t enact similar bans.

Scott said he thinks providing more training and resources for local jurisdictions around de-escalation techniques would effectively eliminate chokeholds and other unnecessary use of force. Rather than ban no-knock warrants, he said Republicans are looking at “a notification act so that we can understand and appreciate the 30,000-plus no-knocks that happen around the country and see where they’re happening so we have more information.”

Several Republicans also expressed reservations about a central element of Democrats’ bill: changing the qualified immunity doctrine, which shields government officials like police from lawsuits for actions performed on the job, to take away certain defenses that law enforcement uses to avoid prosecution.

Scott said he’s not planning to address qualified immunity in his legislation, but Sen. Mike Braun said he will talk with his colleagues to see if there’s any compromise to be had.

“Most in our conference don’t want to go that far, but I’m really going out to see if I can get a few others interested in looking at that as well, because I think that’d be the one thing, that we show them, in our conference, we mean business,” the Indiana Republican said. “You never know, this might be a watershed moment."

‘Near future’

McConnell said he expected the conference to produce legislative recommendations in the “near future.” Scott and Cornyn both said the working group is hoping to produce its proposal by the end of the week.

Scott said he’d like to have something released ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter June 16, but he noted it would ultimately be up to McConnell what to do with the legislation once the working group submits it to him.

While Democrats are not part of the working group, Scott said he’s been talking with some of his colleagues across the aisle to see if they can find common ground. He also said he was talking with the White House but said they “are on a separate track” from Senate Republicans.

“I think there is some synergy between all three tracks, to be honest with you, and certainly there’s a way for us all to work together, but we’ve been in discussion with them for several days,” Scott said.

Later Tuesday, Scott met with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, senior adviser Jared Kushner and deputy assistant to the president Ja’Ron Smith in his office. Scott and Meadows both cited “progress” after the meeting but didn’t get into details.

“There’s a path forward” for Congress to pass policing legislation before the July 4 recess if Democrats cooperate with Republicans, Senate Majority Whip John Thune said.

“I think there’s a lot of common ground on legislation, things that we can do to respond in the near term and then obviously continue the discussion about some of the more structural changes that might be more long term,” the South Dakota Republican said.

Democrats, however, aren’t ready to pare down their plan just yet.

“This bill has been carefully thought out, and there are so many different areas of abuse. We need this whole bill put on the floor and debated,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said. “To do one piece would be a dereliction of our duty.”

The New York Democrat expressed concern that Republicans could ultimately take no action.

“Remember when there was a lot of gun violence and McConnell said, ‘Oh, our caucus is going to discuss it, we’re going to deal with it, etc.,’  and then they never did?” he said. “I‘m worried the same thing would happen here.”

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who said he’s willing to work with Democrats on their bill as he has on previous criminal justice matters, also expressed concern about inaction but said the blame would be on both sides.

“What usually happens when there’s a Republican proposal and a Democrat proposal? An impasse and nothing,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.