Democrats frequently complain about Senate Republicans ignoring their legislative priorities, so when the GOP offered to debate a policing overhaul with amendments, Democrats’ decision to block that left a lot of people scratching their heads.
Both chambers had an opportunity to pass policing legislation and go to a conference committee to compromise on a measure that could become law. But Democrats said the Senate Republican bill was so weak that it wasn’t even worth trying to amend it or use it as a vehicle to go to conference.
As a result, the Senate couldn’t even muster 60 votes to begin debate on the Republican bill Wednesday. The House passed a more expansive Democratic bill Thursday, 236-181, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he won’t take it up.
Congress finds itself in all too common partisan impasse with no immediate prospects for compromise. Republicans are pointing blame at Democrats for blocking debate on the Senate bill, saying they planned to allow the minority to offer amendments. Democrats say there wasn’t a way to salvage the GOP bill with amendments and voting for it would have been contrary to their values.
“I think that the press, if I just may say, gave the Republicans too much credit for the Senate bill. It did nothing. It took our language and it defanged it,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly press conference Friday. “The Senate has to do better.”
Responding to questions about why Democrats couldn’t just use the Senate bill as a vehicle to get conference, where the parties could hash out their differences, Pelosi said the Republican measure wasn’t a serious attempt to resolve longstanding problems of police brutality and racial injustice.
“What are you suggesting? Vote for something that is completely contrary to your values so you can go to conference?” the California Democrat said. “I want Congress to work its will … but if one person is saying chokeholds and the other is saying no chokeholds, it’s very hard to compromise.”
Pelosi was referring to the fact that the House bill would outlaw chokeholds and carotid holds, making law enforcement use of such tactics that cut off breathing a civil rights violation, after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by using his knee to pin him to the ground in a carotid hold.
“I think George Floyd’s murder would have been prevented if our bill that we have now was the law of the land,” Pelosi said.
The Senate bill would not outlaw chokeholds but does include a provision that’s also in the House bill to withhold federal grant funding from state and local law enforcement that don’t have their own chokehold bans.
There are many other differences between the House and Senate bills that stem from longstanding partisan disagreements about the appropriate role of the federal government. There are also political calculations at play, with Republicans wanting to avoid any perception they’re attacking law enforcement and Democrats afraid to look like they’re not doing enough as protesters push progressive policies.
‘It's an ethic’
The reality is that any law Congress passes won’t lead to systemic changes without state and local jurisdictions enacting their own overhauls.
But as the nation faces a a crisis of conscience on racial issues, Democrats say they feel a moral obligation to fight for strict national standards, not compromise on what they see as toothless language.
“This is not even an issue; it’s an ethic,” Pelosi said.
“We always have a responsibility to reach across the aisle,” she added. “But instead of a handshake, you get a slap in the face, then you say you better go back to the drawing board. And that’s what they better do.”
The problem for Democrats is that the Senate Republicans have no plans to start over.
Senate Democrats want the Judiciary Committee to come up with a new bill but the panel’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said he has no plans to do that. He said a policing overhaul “seems to be” a dead issue after a rejected procedural motion on the GOP bill.
“It’s a shame, but we are where we are,” the South Carolina Republican said.
McConnell in floor remarks Thursday also blamed Democrats for the impasse.
“Our Democratic colleagues tried to say with straight faces that they want the Senate to discuss police reform — while they blocked the Senate from discussing police reform,” the Kentucky Republican said.
McConnell pointed out that the Senate measure “literally contains entire bills written by Democrats,” yet they said it was “beyond the pale.” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black GOP senator and architect of the GOP package, “offered a wide-open bipartisan amendment process, and they walked away,” he said.
“But over in the House, when Democrats shoot down every Republican amendment in committee and allow zero amendments on the floor, you can bet it’ll be anointed a big success,” McConnell noted.
‘Back at work’
Indeed, Democrats were celebrating passage of their bill in the House Thursday night and the unexpected support they received from three Republicans — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan. Notably, those three Republicans said they voted for the measure for the sake of compromise, while decrying the lack of a bipartisan process.
“I am ecstatic that we have a bipartisan historic passage of a bill to transform policing in the United States,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, the California Democrat who put together Democrats’ bill, told CQ Roll Call after the vote. “And now I look forward to getting my other Republican colleagues on board. Many, many of them came over and approached me. And so I’m going to celebrate tonight, and I’ll be back at work tomorrow.”
It appears Bass has a lot of work to do to get enough Republicans on board for the Senate to change course. But Democrats say they expect public pressure on the issue — with daily national protests still continuing weeks after Floyd's death — to make a difference.
“We must insist, the country insists, on real change that Black lives matter and that the Senate, the Republicans in the Senate, cannot be allowed and will not be allowed to thwart the will of the country,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said at a press conference before the vote Thursday. “They must support our legislation, and I predict that eventually — it may take a while for the pressure to build up for the country — they will.”
If Republicans don’t act, Democrats are confident the GOP will pay the price in the November elections.
“I don’t think McConnell has any latitude right now to bury this for the sake of his party,” Texas Democratic Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee said. “In this instance, his inaction is probably going to be close to the death of the Republican Party.”