House passes policing bill amid familiar partisan stalemate

The effort appears destined to dissipate at the steps of a deeply polarized Congress

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks as House Democrats gather for a press event on the House steps ahead of the vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on June 25.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks as House Democrats gather for a press event on the House steps ahead of the vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on June 25. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 25, 2020 at 5:24pm, Updated at 9:21pm

The House sent its version of a policing overhaul bill to the Senate late Thursday, as Congress settled into a familiar partisan stalemate in which Democrats and Republicans staked out positions that appear to leave little room for compromise.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats did not allow amendments to their comprehensive bill ahead of a vote just 18 days after it was introduced. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already said the bill would not go anywhere, and the Trump administration threatened to veto it if it did because it would “undermine law enforcement and make communities less safe.”

And Pelosi told reporters Thursday that the narrower Senate Republican version would have no effect and “did nothing” and is a nonstarter in the House. Democrats had voted to block it on the Senate floor Wednesday, with complaints that it was flawed and not bipartisan, stopping one key legislative path to compromise that Pelosi said wouldn’t work anyway.

[Senate GOP policing bill might be stranded at the gate]

“We don’t want chokeholds. They allow chokeholds, what are we going to compromise? A certain number of chokeholds?” Pelosi said at a Washington Post event about a provision in the House bill to ban officers from using the maneuver during arrests. “This is irreconcilable. Some things are just not reconcilable. That’s it.”

The 236-181 vote, announced by Pelosi and followed by some applause on the floor, cut mostly along party lines. Republican Reps. Will Hurd of Texas, Fred Upton of Michigan and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania voted for the bill. Just prior to that final vote, the House also rejected, 180-236, a motion to recommit the bill that sought to change the text to that of the Senate Republican bill.

“Today we are missing an opportunity to pass an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill,” Hurd, the only Black member of the House Republican caucus, said earlier on the floor. “We are missing an opportunity for a police reform bill to actually become law. We are missing an opportunity to do our part to prevent another Black person from dying in police custody.”

Just like that, the latest wave of political demand to address law enforcement misconduct and racial bias at this moment — generated in protests and marches in cities nationwide, which were in response to a video of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis officer — appeared destined to dissipate futilely at the steps of a deeply polarized Congress.

Democrats blamed Republicans and Republicans blamed Democrats, throughout the day, on the House floor and to reporters in the Senate hallways. The sides complained that the other party didn’t work together to address an issue both sides say should be addressed.

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“I don’t know what we do now,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. “It’s a shame, but we are where we are.”

Pelosi, at a news conference on the House steps Thursday, said the marchers and protesters have demanded “this moment of national agony become one of national action.” She then put that obligation onto the Senate to act on the House version.

“When we pass this bill, the Senate will have a choice: to honor George Floyd’s life or to do nothing,” Pelosi said.

Democrats wasted no time in trying to use the vote to help with the fall campaigns. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched digital ads Thursday against nine GOP House members: Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska, Steve Chabot and Michael Turner of Ohio, Mike Garcia of California, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, John Katko and Lee Zeldin of New York, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey.

"By voting 'no' to the Justice in Policing Act, Scott Perry is enabling police violence to go unchecked," reads the text on screen at the end of a 44-second video, shared first with CQ Roll Call. The footage show a makeshift memorial outside the White House honoring people of color who have died at the hands of police.

The ads will run on YouTube, targeted toward women under 40. Though the DCCC plans to spend a relatively small amount — a "four-figure" buy — the ads are an early sign that Democrats view combating police brutality as a salient campaign issue, even as Republicans try to tie vulnerable Democrats to activists' calls to "defund the police."

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other Democrats said Thursday that the House bill now will put political pressure onto Senate Republicans to do something — and that pressure will continue to build in the country.

“This is not the time for half-measures, it is not the time for further study, it’s not the time for sham, fake reform,” the New York Democrat said. “The Senate bill is sham, fake reform. It gestures, it uses some of the same words, but it does nothing real.”

[Key differences exist among House, Senate and White House policing plans]

During the floor debate, Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan was among the Republicans who criticized the Democratic approach in the House, saying he reached out to the bill’s lead author, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif. He sought to support the bill and offer input, but “to no avail.”

“This issue will not go away. I think we agree on that, it’s staying,” Mitchell said. “What do you say we focus on doing our current jobs rather than worrying about the November election? How about we legislate to achieve effective reform instead of messaging, because messaging right now is a disaster for this nation.”

Mitchell concluded: “We should all in this body feel shame for taking up space and time when we’re not solving the problem. God help us all.”

Nadler, whose committee advanced the bill at a markup last week, responded that Democrats had reached out to Republicans but that the Republicans wouldn’t share the text of amendments ahead of a markup or the floor action.

“We have not received a single outreach regarding this important matter from either the Trump White House or the Trump Department of Justice,” Nadler said. “In my experience, if there were a serious and good-faith effort to enact legislation, the White House would seek to work with both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol.”

Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, R-Texas, said on the floor that it wasn’t too late to work together toward common goals.

“If we voted on this section by section, I believe there are sections where there would be an overwhelming bipartisan majority for some necessary and crucial reforms,” Crenshaw said. “There’s other parts where, if we just worked together and made some changes, we’d likely get to yes on a lot of these.”

But Republicans also see provisions in the House bill that aren’t ripe for compromise because they would undermine law enforcement, such as those that would end a court-created doctrine of qualified immunity that protects police officers, or would ban chokeholds or no-knock raids.

Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, citing conversations with law enforcement officers, said on the floor that the provisions would be “making criminals out of decent cops enforcing the laws in good faith.”

“It’s disappointing that we can’t have a bipartisan bill in front of us today,” Lesko said.

Lindsey McPherson, Katherine Tully-McManus and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.