Joe Biden wants Congress to end chokeholds and military transfers to police. Nancy Pelosi is talking about “historic” opportunities to reform police policies. Chuck Grassley says it’s time to “address police use of force.”
But the smart bet is on Congress accomplishing little in response to nationwide protests decrying the killing of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of U.S. police. The House and Senate can’t even agree right now on a relatively modest reform to a small-business loan program, let alone how to plunge into a debate over race and cops.
“If we’re waiting for the Republican majority, nothing will happen,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “You look at our inability to deal with gun safety, it can discourage the belief that we ever respond to anything that’s timely." He added that House Democrats should still move forward on their proposals regardless of opposition in the GOP-led Senate.
Complicating efforts is that the two chambers are just beginning negotiations on a fifth package of economic relief for the coronavirus pandemic and a presidential election is around the corner.
Democrats are also divided on how far-reaching to go in addressing Floyd’s death and the ensuing unrest coursing through the country. And Republicans, long resistant to curbing police powers, won’t move on anything that President Donald Trump doesn’t support. Senate Republicans didn't even discuss the matter at a party lunch on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to commit to a police reform bill by July 4, but McConnell is sticking to an agenda of confirming nominees, passing a public lands bill and including liability reform in any coronavirus aid measure. Schumer offered a resolution on Tuesday afternoon condemning Trump’s clearance of protesters and asserting the right to peacefully protest, but it was blocked by McConnell, who offered his own spurned resolution.
McConnell deputies cast Schumer as chasing headlines.
“I thought he wanted to do COVID-19 [legislation]. Sen. Schumer can’t make up his mind what he wants. Whatever the news of the day is,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Pelosi and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus are organizing a public event to honor Floyd as soon as this week. The CBC is also developing a set of overarching principles meant to guide the chamber’s legislative response. But floor action is likely still weeks away. The Democratic minority has less leverage in the Senate, but the caucus hopes to attach language barring the transfer of military equipment to police departments and devise what Schumer calls a “bold” package of reforms.
And after years of Congress’ refusal to address police brutality, some senior Democrats are already warning this time better be different.
“I’m not going to any hearing on police misconduct. That’s a waste of time,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a senior member of the CBC. “A nebulous hearing is a congressional encounter between Democrats and Republicans, where minutes are kept and hours are lost. I just don’t have the patience for that.”
Congress has often failed to answer the calls of a nation demanding action to confront the racial inequities that still plague America.
After years of delay, lawmakers pushed through a narrow criminal justice reform law in December 2018 that eased mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. But other than that, Congress has done little to address the unrest that has swept the country in recent years as outraged citizens take to the streets to protest the latest police killing of a person of color.
A bill to make lynching a federal crime has stalled for years, though the House and Senate could conceivably reconcile their differences on the bipartisan bill before the end of the year. And legislation to curb police brutality went nowhere after the 2014 fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“That’s why people are so frustrated. We’ve been here before,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
House Democrats, led by the CBC, are trying to quickly mobilize behind a robust legislative package that tackles racial profiling and excessive use of force, among other issues. But the caucus’ ideological and generational divisions over how to respond are already puncturing Democrats’ unifying front.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on police brutality next week. But a committee vote on legislation as well as floor action isn’t expected until later this month at the earliest. And that’s assuming Democrats can coalesce around a legislative response.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will convene a separate hearing later this month but was unsure if legislation would come of it: “I don’t have anything in mind right now.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is encouraging Attorney General William Barr to review the practices of local police departments, but like many Republicans, said he was unsure what role there was for Congress to play. “There’s a federal role to play here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a congressional role,” he said.
“I don’t know that I’d want to do that from the top-down. I’d like to see what happens from the trenches up,” added Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
And within the CBC there is a split over how forcefully to respond — and how much lawmakers are willing to battle the powerful Fraternal Order of Police on legislation to address police brutality and legal immunity given to law enforcement officials. Moderate Democrats may not find that legislation worth tackling without a commitment that the Senate will take it up and produce a law.
There is strong support among House Democrats for a bill from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that would outlaw the use of chokeholds by police, classifying the action as excessive force. Jeffries first introduced the bill in 2014, after the death of Eric Garner, who died as he gasped for breath, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breath,” while a police officer refused to release his chokehold.
But other bills are more controversial and sure to spark a fight with the police union, including legislation to eliminate qualified immunity, which essentially prevents people from suing police officers who commit illegal or unconstitutional acts against them.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chair of the CBC, is imploring Democrats to act despite fierce opposition from the police union, casting the current crisis as a moral issue affecting everyone, not just people of color.
“Some of the bills might be scary because of the police unions,” Bass told her colleagues on a private call Monday afternoon.
And on a private call between Bass and the moderate New Democrat Coalition on Tuesday afternoon, several Democrats stressed the idea of not looking like they're "picking sides" between law enforcement and people of color as they craft a response, according to sources on the call.
Independent Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican, introduced legislation this week to end qualified immunity. But it’s unclear how much support he’ll receive from either Democrats or Republicans.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) declined to say whether he personally supported the effort on Tuesday, telling reporters he would defer to the CBC on which set of bills the House ultimately puts forward.
“Rather than go into each one of the individual bills, I want to wait for the CBC and the Judiciary Committee,” Hoyer said. “I will make an exception on the Jeffries language on using some kind of chokehold or device to shut off a person’s ability to breathe. ... I do support that bill.”
All that internal wrangling among the House Democratic majority might well land with an utter thud in the Senate. McConnell has been leery for years of taking up issues that divide his caucus, and criminal justice reform and police reform issues don’t neatly fall along partisan lines like other issues.
McConnell on Tuesday said there “may” be a role for Congress to play. But he made no commitment.
“This is a vexing issue,” he said. “If we could have figured out exactly what to do, I think we’d have done it years ago.”
Sarah Ferris and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.