Democratic senators on Monday gave their strongest indications yet they may block the Republican police reform bill from coming to the floor, a risky move that could prevent any overhaul measure from being enacted this year over their party’s concerns that the GOP bill is too weak.
National calls to address police misconduct and racial injustice have put pressure on lawmakers to act and spurred competing legislative proposals from Republicans and Democrats with major differences. As Senate Republicans move to take up their own plan – which was authored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the chamber – Democrats have faced a tough decision. They have criticized the legislation as inadequate, but if they block it from advancing to debate they may open themselves up to criticism that they did not do enough to secure a compromise that could make it to President Donald Trump’s desk.
“Tim Scott’s bill is a half-assed bill that doesn’t do what we should be doing, which is doing honest police reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat. “The time to talk is before the bill hits the floor. … If you really want to do serious work on a serious matter, you ought to be having discussions right now.”
Ahead of a Wednesday procedural vote, Democrats are demanding clear commitments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that they will be able to vote on amendments to the GOP proposal on the floor. But McConnell has so far said he’d be willing to have an “open” process on the floor but has not specified which amendments would be considered. Democrats are expected to continue to discuss their strategy on Tuesday.
The GOP and Democratic plans have sharp differences that make any attempt at compromise challenging.
The GOP plan has a major emphasis on incentivizing states to take action. The Democratic plan, in contrast, has a heavy emphasis on setting national standards, such as mandates for federal uniformed officers to wear body cameras and banning chokeholds. The Republican proposal does not include an outright ban on chokeholds but Scott argued earlier this week “we get very, very close to that place” by blocking federal grant funds to departments that don’t ban chokeholds themselves.
A major sticking point between Democrats and Republicans is whether to overhaul qualified immunity for cops so it’s easier to sue them in civil court. The House Democratic bill overhauls the standard, while Scott’s Republican bill does not.
On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana will propose a bill aiming to find a middle ground on the issue.
“Without any direction from Congress, our judicial branch has unilaterally created and defined qualified immunity,” Braun said in a statement accompanying his legislation. “It’s time Congress does their job to establish a qualified immunity law that defends law enforcement, while protecting the rights of the people.”
McConnell on Monday criticized Senate Democrats for “agonizing over whether to block” the legislation, adding that the “only way” to to pass both the Republican Senate policing bill and the House Democrats’ bill and then come to a final legislative agreement is by passing the GOP measure in the Senate.
Earlier Monday, McConnell set up the critical test vote on the legislation for Wednesday. Republicans need 60 votes to open up debate on the measure, meaning at least seven Democrats would need to join with Republicans.
After a Monday afternoon caucus call, Senate Democrats were downbeat about the prospects for the bill offered by Scott, saying more needs changing and contending McConnell had failed to commit to allowing floor votes on amendments. Many expected the bill to be blocked since Republicans need the Democratic help on the Wednesday vote.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, declined to discuss his party’s strategy, but he pointed to the Democrats’ decision to block McConnell’s initial $2 trillion stimulus plan in March. Afterward, the two sides cut a deal that Democrats got behind following changes to the historic rescue package.
“We faced similar offers in the past – on the CARES Act – and I think the best thing that happened is we didn’t accept his offer and demanded a bipartisan approach to it,” Durbin said.
Moreover, key groups also began to urge their opposition to the plan, including the influential NAACP, which urged senators to block the bill on Wednesday’s procedural vote. Also on Monday, both Rev. Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump – the attorney representing the family of George Floyd, the unarmed black man who was killed while in Minneapolis custody when an officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes – announced their opposition to the Scott plan.
“The Black Community is tired of the lip service and is shocked that this $7 billion package can be thought of as legislation,” Crump said.
Many Democrats would not say if they would vote against proceeding to the bill, even as they were uncertain how they would get to an affirmative vote on Wednesday.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a lead author of the Democrats’ bill, would not say Monday if he would vote to advance the Scott bill.
“We’re having a lot of conversation,” Booker said. “I think there are a lot of things right now that show that the process we are headed towards is just not a good process. …The House went through a process. They went through committee they did a lot of things. It was a normal, regular order process. This is not that. We’re having a lot of conversations about that now and we’ll see where it ends up.”
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut added, “There has been no outreach from McConnell.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, was sharply critical of the Scott bill, called the Justice Act.
“Where is the justice in the Justice Act?” he said. Asked if Democrats could change it on the floor to their liking, Menendez said: “If you got commitments up front. There are none.”
One Democrat in a difficult reelection, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, said he is inclined to vote to proceed to the bill. But when asked about a lack of progress in talks with McConnell, Jones said, “There never is. We’ll see where it goes.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and swing vote, said: “I have no idea (how I will vote). Everything is still open.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Daniella Mora and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.