The lead Senate GOP negotiator over new policing legislation is floating a compromise on a major sticking point that has derailed past efforts to curb excessive force by law enforcement: civil lawsuit protections currently afforded to police officers.
The issue of so-called qualified immunity has been a flashpoint in talks over legislation aimed at imposing new police practices across the country, helping to derail legislation last summer amid nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
But on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said he is proposing shifting the burden of responsibility from individual police officers to their employers: police departments. He said the idea of allowing police departments to be taken to court but not individual officers “seems to be resonating” in his talks with both Democrats and Republicans.
“I assume my conference understands where I am, and I’m hopeful and optimistic” about their support, Scott said of the other 49 Senate Republicans.
Asked if Democrats have responded to his proposals on qualified immunity, Scott said: “You’ll have to ask them how they feel about it but they have been as responsive in this recent conversation than they have ever been, in my opinion.” He said talks are “on the verge of wrapping soon.”
Democrats signaled an openness to compromising on the issue but indicated there was more work to be done to get to a final deal.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, the lead House negotiator, said Wednesday that “there’s a lot of room for discussion around qualified immunity. Qualified immunity must be addressed. We have to figure out ways to hold police officers accountable.”
She suggested she wanted to go further than the Scott proposal.
“We need the individual officers and the agencies to be accountable,” Bass said after talking on the Senate floor with key Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Because I think if the agencies, the cities, if they’re concerned about lawsuits, they will not want to have problem officers.”
Some progressive Democrats are balking at Scott’s idea.
“No,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a liberal New York freshman Democrat, told CNN when asked about the compromise being floated by Scott. “Individual police officers absolutely should be held accountable.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is taking the lead for Senate Democrats on the issue, said that he was “not going to get into details” about his talks with Scott.
“Scott and I are friends. He’s an honest broker,” Booker said. “And again, I’ve committed to getting something done, and we’ll see how it all works.”
Still, there were signs that the GOP’s middle-ground approach could attract some key Democrats. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke positively about Scott’s approach, telling CNN that it’s “movement in the right direction.”
Asked about shifting the burden from individual officers to police departments, the Illinois Democrat said, “That’s practically what happens on 98% of the cases.”
Hurdles ahead for a deal
Despite the optimism, there are still ample details to work through. And any deal would have to win over both parties in order to get to 60 votes to overcome any filibuster attempt in the Senate – and then pass muster in the narrowly divided House.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, a freshman Georgia Democrat, would not say Tuesday if he were open to compromising on the issue of qualified immunity – nor would Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I think it’s important to hold police accountable,” Warnock told CNN. “We are witnessing, tragically, over and over, namely what happens when there is no accountability. So I think the same way in which we hold people accountable in other fields – we hold doctors accountable, we hold airline pilots accountable for their actions.”
Warnock said he would have to review Scott’s idea before weighing in on it.
Harris, who as a senator helped craft the Democratic proposal, wouldn’t say on Wednesday if she’s open to a middle ground on the contentious issue.
“I need to be fully briefed on it,” Harris said when CNN asked if she’s open to a compromise on qualified immunity. “I haven’t made a decision about it. But as you know, I was part of the language – I helped write the language.”
Resistance also could come from Republicans.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he’s “skeptical” of Scott’s middle-ground approach.
“I don’t want anything that would phase out or that would weaken in any meaningful way qualified immunity for cops or other law enforcement,” Hawley told CNN. “I think that it is vitally important for giving law enforcement the protections that they need to do their jobs.”
Yet the shifting landscape in the aftermath of the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd has both sides signaling a deal is possible, with Bass saying that she is “hoping that we will get it over the finish line and this will be positive.”
Differences in approach between the two parties
Bass said the goal is to have a deal “by the time we hit the anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” on May 25. Her bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed the House without any Republican support in March.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for us not to put a bill on President Biden’s desk by that time,” Bass told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” later Wednesday. “We have been talking about this now – it will be a year, so there’s no reason for us not to act, and that’s why the momentum from this verdict and frankly the positive peaceful protests have been helpful in contributing to that momentum.”
The Democratic bill would set up a national registry of police misconduct to stop officers from evading consequences for their actions by moving to other jurisdictions. It would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, and it would overhaul qualified immunity. It also bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants.
Republicans have called the House bill too heavy-handed at the federal level, instead opting for a proposal floated by Scott last year that incentivizes states to take action to curb excessive police force like chokeholds. Scott’s bill would use the promise of federal grant money to push departments to take steps like requiring body cameras and training for tactics to de-escalate instances of potential violence.
Democrats filibustered Scott’s bill last summer in the Senate over key areas of disagreement – mainly their preference for national standards, demands for an outright ban on chokeholds and an overhaul of qualified immunity.
What Scott agrees to almost certainly will have the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who signaled some optimism on Wednesday: “With renewed discussion of this, I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way forward.” The Kentucky Republican told CNN that “of course” he backs Scott’s current efforts on the matter.
Scott told CNN the current talks with Democrats are different from last summer’s failed effort – potentially “because of the number of incidents that have happened since then.”
“Maybe when you take a step back from politics and look at the impact that the legislation would have in communities,” Scott said, describing what’s changed since last year. “The two bills are very much similar, in a lot of ways, so why not get what you can get, and fight over what you can’t later.”
Scott – the lone African American Republican in the Senate – and Booker, one of just two Black senators in the Democratic caucus, have a personal friendship that Scott says adds “a level of trust.”
“We are philosophically disconnected friends, but we are connected in the goal of making progress on this very important issue.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc, Annie Grayer, Daniella Diaz and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.