Democrats blocked the Senate from proceeding to a Republican policing overhaul bill Wednesday, arguing the measure was so inadequate that no amount of floor debate or amendments could repair its shortcomings.
The 55-45 vote left the chamber short of the 60 votes required on the procedural motion. That was telegraphed Tuesday after Democrats signaled they would not play ball unless Republicans started over with bipartisan negotiations.
That invitation was roundly rejected by Republicans, who argued that even though they did not include Democrats in the bill-writing process, their priorities were included.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the bill championed by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was the “legislative equivalent of a fig leaf” and accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of pushing it only to provide political cover for his party.
“Why don’t we put a good bill on the floor that can pass?” Schumer said. He also responded to Republicans who say their bill and the House Democrats’ measure are similar in many respects, asserting that the two bills differ like “night and day.”
The GOP bill was roundly criticized by civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote.
CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass called Scott’s bill a “watered-down fake reform bill.” The California Democrat urged a “no” vote, and touted the House bill, which includes what Democrats say is stronger language that would force state and local law enforcement departments to make changes.
“Anything short of this [bill] has failed and that is why the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has received broad support among Members of Congress, major civil rights organizations, celebrities, and the private sector,” Bass said in a statement. The death of Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last month sparked nationwide protests and accelerated the push for congressional action on a policing overhaul.
Arguing about arguing
Scott, speaking on the floor after the vote, said he sat down with Democratic senators and was able to offer as many as 20 amendments to repair the bill, but they “walked out” on him anyway.
“This process is not broken because of the legislation,” he said. “This is a broken process beyond that one piece of legislation. It’s one of the reasons why communities of color, young Americans of all colors are losing faith in the institutions of authority and power in this nation.”
As Scott finished his speech, which included deeply personal stories about his sometimes troubled childhood, the chamber erupted in applause.
McConnell pointed the blame back on Democrats, saying the party insisted a bill be brought to the floor before Independence Day but now wants to “rewrite the bill behind closed doors in advance.”
The Kentucky Republican said the argument makes the Senate a parody of itself.
“We’re literally arguing about whether to stop arguing about whether to start arguing about something else,” McConnell said.
He said Senate Democrats were instead poised to turn a routine step “into a partisan impasse.”
“Today was supposed to bring progress for an issue that is weighing heavily on the minds of many Americans,” McConnell said.
Despite the leaders’ back-and-forth, senators routinely use procedural votes to extract further negotiation or concessions on legislation.
As the Senate conferences played rope-a-dope, campaigns around the country tried to seize an advantage. Typical was an email release blasting “obstructionist” Democrats issued by the Republican Party in Iowa, where GOP Sen. Joni Ernst faces a competitive reelection race against Democrat Theresa Greenfield.
“Does Greenfield Side with Schumer on Blocking Police Reform?” the subject line read. It went on to note that Ernst praised the state legislature for passing a policing overhaul unanimously and “called on congressional Democrats to follow Iowa’s example.”
After the vote, McConnell did what leaders typically do to make sure the measure does not stall completely: He called for a motion to reconsider the vote, which allows him to bring it up again later.
He didn’t give a clear timeline for when he would bring the bill back to the floor, telling reporters, “We will let you know.”
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin expressed confidence a policing bill would pass if it were brought up in committee and lawmakers were able to develop something in a bipartisan way.
The Illinois Democrat said he discussed bringing the bill up in the Judiciary Committee with Chairman Lindsey Graham, but said he doesn’t believe McConnell is “engaging” with Graham or other committee leaders “in a way that he should.”
Asked if he would bring it to his committee, Graham said he didn’t know, adding that he hoped the matter could be settled on the floor. When asked why not take the bill to committee, he said, “I don’t see them running the place.”
Durbin said he believes the issue won’t go away, especially in the current charged environment around policing. “But if McConnell decides that’s the end of his involvement on this, I think it just reflects his strategy, which was check the box and move on,” he said.
Not all members of the Senate Democratic Conference opposed advancing the GOP bill Wednesday — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, Alabama’s Doug Jones and Maine’s Angus King voted with the Republicans. Manchin said that while no bill was perfect, “we need to be on this bill and debate it and talk about it.”
Meanwhile, in the House
The House policing overhaul measure faces a different fate when it comes up for a vote Thursday.
It is most likely guaranteed to pass since a majority of the House has already expressed its support, with 230 Democrats co-sponsoring the bill.
There are only three Democrats who’ve not yet expressed support for the measure — Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Jared Golden of Maine and Ben McAdams of Utah. Their offices did not immediately return requests for comment.
The outstanding question is whether any Republicans are willing to join Democrats in voting for the legislation. None have signaled plans to support it, with most instead backing Scott’s proposal. Roughly three-quarters of the House Republican Conference — 148 members — have sponsored the House companion to Scott’s bill, introduced by Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber.
As the Rules Committee considered the Democrats’ bill Wednesday, ranking member Tom Cole said Republicans put forward their own bill because they were “shut out of the Democratic majority’s conversations.”
“My friends across the aisle did not even attempt to engage Republicans in a meaningful way and consider our ideas for advancing our shared goal of meaningful reform,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
Cole added that the GOP bill “could be signed into law tomorrow.” President Donald Trump has said he would sign it if it reached his desk. The White House issued a statement of administration policy Wednesday, threatening to veto the House bill.
Trump during an unrelated news conference after the vote signaled there may not be room for compromise.
“We won’t sacrifice. … We won’t do anything that’s going to hurt our police,” he said. “If nothing happens with it, it’s one of those things. We have different philosophies.”
House Democrats echoed their Senate colleagues in saying the GOP bill had no teeth and was just a ruse to pretend they were doing something on the policing issue.
“Our bill does something; theirs does nothing,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday on MSNBC.
The California Democrat said that she had held out hope that Republicans would come up with legislation that would be reconcilable with the House bill but that they have failed to do so.
Pelosi called Scott’s measure “a nonstarter” and declined to apologize for remarks she made Tuesday accusing Republicans of “trying to get away with murder, actually — the murder of George Floyd.”
The Congressional Budget Office said in a cost estimate of the bill released Wednesday that it would increase the number of criminal cases litigated in federal courts and thus increase revenues from criminal fines, which are deposited in the Crime Victims Fund.
CBO estimates the fines deposited in the fund and later spent from it would total about $1 million over 10 years.
The bill would also increase the number of civil suits brought against federal law enforcement. CBO estimates the cost of damages awarded to plaintiffs in such cases could total $4 million over 10 years but noted “significant uncertainty surrounds that estimate.”