Bipartisan discussions are underway as lawmakers try once again to find consensus for a bill to overhaul policing that can pass the United States Senate.
The lead sponsor of last summer’s failed Senate bill, Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN he met with a working group on the issue in recent weeks and is “hopeful” this effort will work.
“I’ve been talking with my colleagues on the other side,” Scott said. “I think we are in a position where we’re at least in the middle of a serious conversation. I’m hopeful that it goes in the right direction, which is to the finish line and becomes law in a bipartisan fashion.”
Scott has been here before. Last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, as marches and protests calling for police reform and social justice filled American streets, Scott, the only Black Republican in the United States Senate, brought a policing reform bill to the Senate floor, where it failed to pass the filibuster in the Republican controlled Senate. Democrats blocked the bill because they felt it didn’t go far enough.
Less than one year later, the political environment has shifted with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Any bill will still have to garner 60 votes in the Senate, achieving that threshold demands bipartisan support. The Senate is currently a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaking vote.
Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat of California, is quarterbacking the effort from the House side. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House without any Republican support earlier this month. Bass, like others involved in the current discussions, was quick to emphasize the bipartisan process is still very much in the early stages.
“There aren’t any negotiations in the Senate, but there have been discussions, but it would be an overstatement to say they’re negotiations,” she told CNN last week, adding she hopes negotiations may be able to begin “in about a month,” describing the timeline as urgent.
“I think that Sen. Scott has been direct,” Bass said. “He wants to see something happen. Now we’ll see if we can make it happen.”
Democrats first passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the wake of Floyd’s death last summer and after young Americans took to the streets in a historic protest movement against police violence. But it never passed the Republican-controlled Senate.
The current version of the House bill, passed on March 3, would overhaul qualified immunity laws for law enforcement, prohibit racial and religious profiling by law enforcement, ban on no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and establish a national registry of police misconduct maintained by the Department of Justice. The bill would also ban chokeholds at the federal level and classify them as a civil rights violation.
Bass acknowledged there are a number of topics the group needs to work out as they continue their discussions.
“I think it’s just a process so we’re just working through some of the thorny issues,” she said.
One key sticking point is qualified immunity. Critics say the legal defense used in civil cases shields law enforcement from accountability while defenders argue it protects officers’ ability to make quick decisions in dangerous situations.
Another issue where the House version differed from Scott’s proposal last time was banning chokeholds. Unlike the Democratic version, the Republican bill did not ban chokeholds outright, but instead blocked federal grant money to departments that didn’t ban chokeholds themselves.
As Congress works through its process, outside advocacy groups look on, hopeful this time the efforts may actually end with a bill being signed into law by President Joe Biden, who made policing reform a key campaign promise.
The National Urban League participated in drafting the House version of the bill alongside Bass, according to its president Marc Morial, who said the onus is now on the United States Senate.
“I want whatever it takes to pass the bill,” Morial told CNN. “We’re trying to sway public opinion to sway members of the Senate.”
But Morial wants to see a bill pass that actually creates change, and is not just “symbolic.” He called Biden a “key player,” in that effort, ultimately because Biden needs to sign the bill into law. The White House vocalized its support for the House bill, giving its blessing in a statement just days before it passed the House.
“To make our communities safer, we must begin by rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the people they are entrusted to serve and protect. We cannot rebuild that trust if we do not hold police officers accountable for abuses of power and tackle systemic misconduct – and systemic racism – in police departments,” the statement read.
And a White House official says, “senior White House leaders continue to monitor progress in Congress and consult with key stakeholders.”
Morial said there’s an assumption for them to be more publicly involved in the future.
While it’s unclear how involved White House has been so far, Morial said there’s an assumption for them to be involved in the future.
“We expect the White House to weigh in. When that happens, it is going to be a question of the right time and when the right pressure needs to be brought,” Morial said.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc and Jamie Ehrlich contributed to this report.