Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a GOP police reform bill, delivering a blow to enact changes on policing in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The Senate voted 55 to 45, denying Republicans the 60 votes needed on a procedural vote to bring the bill to the floor for debate and possibly amending it. Two Democrat Senators — Joe Manchin (WV) and Doug Jones (AL) along with Independent Senator Angus King (ME) voted with the Republicans to open the debate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell switched his vote to ‘no’ at the end of the vote, in a procedural move to swiftly bring the measure back for reconsideration.
“The Republican majority proposed the legislative equivalent of a fig leaf — something that provides a little cover but no real change,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in a floor speech Wednesday. “The harsh fact of the matter is, the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform.
“As far as I can tell, the Republican bill does not even attempt one significant reform — not one to bring more accountability to police officers who are guilty of misconduct,” Schumer added. “Don’t get on your sanctimonious horse, Leader McConnell. You have none of the civil rights leaders behind you.”
The JUSTICE Act, spearheaded by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the GOP lone Black Senator would require data collection to track officer’s use of force, requires law enforcement agencies to send the Attorney General reports to track “no-knock” warrants, and would incentivize state and local police departments to stop using chokeholds by linking a ban to federal law enforcement grants. It also provides grants to increase the use of body cameras and makes lynching a federal crime.
Congressional Democrats offered their own police reform package a week before Scott unveiled his version and both bills have several areas of overlap. However, both parties disagree over issues of chokeholds, no-knock warrants in drug cases, and “qualified immunity,” a legal mechanism that protects police from being sued if accused of misconduct. Democrats, however, view qualified immunity as a top priority for any police reform bill to advance.
McConnell criticized Democrats for “coming up with a “bizarre new ultimatum” in threatening to block the proposal before the scheduled vote for a debate.
“Today was supposed to bring progress for an issue that is weighing heavy on the American mind,” McConnell said. “Instead, our Democratic colleagues are poised to turn this routine step into a partisan impasse. They don’t want to take up the issue. They don’t want debate. They don’t want amendments. They’ll filibuster police reform from even reaching the floor of the Senate unless the majority lets the minority rewrite the bill behind closed doors and in advance.”
Democrats threatened on Tuesday that they were prepared to block the GOP police reform bill from advancing, calling the measure a “bad” and “ineffective” bill.
“Because the bill needs such large-scale and fundamental change, there is no conceivable way that a series of amendments strong enough to cure the defects in the bill garner 60 votes either. So no bill will pass as a result of this ploy by Sen. McConnell,” Schumer said Tuesday speaking from the Senate floor. “The longer you look at the Republican policing reform effort, the more obvious the shortcoming and deficiencies. The Republican majority has given the Senate a bad bill and proposed no credible way to sufficiently improve it.”
After the vote, Scott stated that he told Democrats he would be willing to take amendment votes on any changes they sought to his bill, something they have argued for.
“We received a letter from Sen. Schumer saying that there were five things in the Justice Act that didn’t meet their principle. My response was a simple one, let’s have five amendments on those things if we can get the votes on these two sides of the chamber, we should include that in the legislation,” Scott said during a fiery speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I met with other senators on the other side who said there are more than five things that we need to have a conversation about. So I said let’s include an amendment for every single issue you have. They didn’t stick around for that meeting. And they walked out.”
He also blasted Democrats for opposing the bill, citing their opposition is fueled by partisan politics, not policy.
“The actual problem is not what is being offered,” Scott added. “It is who is offering it. What I missed in this issue is that the stereotyping of Republicans is just as toxic to the outcomes of the most vulnerable communities in this nation. They cannot allow this party to be seen as a party that reaches out to all communities in this nation.”
Democrats are now looking to back the Republicans into a corner to force them to the negotiating table for a bipartisan legislation.
“My prayer is that after this bill fails today after Leader McConnell’s path reaches its pre-ordained dead end, one he intended to happen, we can start down a path of bipartisanship, real bipartisanship,” Schumer said, adding that he would “put pressure, moral pressure, political pressure, every kind of pressure” on McConnell to “say let’s negotiate a good bill.”
The failure to pass the Senate GOP bill effectively freezes the police reform measures in Congress for the time being. House Democrats are expected to approve their own bill Thursday along party lines, but Senate Republicans have already stated that it would be a non-starter in the Senate.