Calling Senate Police-Reform Bill Toothless, Democrats Vow to Sink It

President Donald Trump listens as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speak Monday during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Democrats announced Tuesday they would block a Republican-drafted bill focused on narrow police reforms from reaching a vote on the Senate floor.

“It’s clear the Republican bill, as is, will not get 60 votes,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday of the Justice Act. “There’s overwhelming opposition to the bill in our caucus, and 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 could garner 60 votes, either.”

Schumer, along with Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, wrote a letter Tuesday urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to draft another bill that would include provisions on ending racial profiling or creating a national use-of-force standard for officers. The legislation is “so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations,” they wrote.

“This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point,” they wrote.

Booker and Harris drafted the companion version in the Senate to House Democrats’ George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which cleared the House’s Judiciary committee after hours of debate last week. How long the bill will be debated on the House floor on Thursday, along with other provisions to the legislation, will be discussed Wednesday at a hearing of the House Rules Committee.

Both versions of that legislation feature a federal ban on carotid holds and a modification to qualified immunity — the legal doctrine that says officers and other officials can’t be sued for violating constitutional rights unless they violate the law. The bill also would ban no-knock warrants and includes provisions to support independent investigations into law enforcement officer conduct.

A week after House Democrats introduced their legislation, the Senate’s only black Republican member, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, proposed the Justice Act. Scott’s bill removes modifications to qualified immunity and incentives local police departments to create policies against chokeholds, but Democrats say such changes are not enough.

Harris and Booker, who are black Democrats, both spoke from the Senate floor Tuesday, asking for bipartisan compromise and discussions.

Booker said the body and country was in a “moral moment,” charged by the May 25 death of George Floyd where bystander video showed Floyd lose consciousness, unarmed and in handcuffs, while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. The Justice Act “belies its name,” Booker said, adding that Americans have been protesting not for studies of these police practices but for true change.

“The call is for us to act. To come together as good men and women and do something to protect human lives,” the New Jersey senator said. “Now we’ve done that before on the federal level, in a bipartisan way, come together to protect people against indiscriminate violence. … This is not about partisanship — a Republican bill and a Democratic bill — it is about taking meaningful action that will create change.”

Harris, who represents California, emphasized that all 50 states and more than 140 American cities saw demonstrations this month against police brutality. Urging members to “meet the calls and the cries of this moment and this movement,” Harris called the Republican bill an attempt to “obstruct real progress and real justice in our country.” 

“The Republican bill has been thrown out to give lip-service to an issue with nothing substantial in it that would actually save or would have saved any of those lives,” Harris said.

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas asked Harris if Senate Democrats were aware the Justice Act contained a provision to make lynching a federal penalty — a bill blocked by Senator Rand Paul earlier this month. Cornyn also asked if Democrats were aware “of the rules of the Senate, which allow Senators to offer amendments to legislation once we get on it.”

Like Cornyn and Booker, Harris belongs to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said Democratic members have tried to discuss their legislation when the group has met, to no avail.

“If we’re going to talk about process, let us look at all the tools available to well-intentioned, well-meaning legislators if the goal is actually to solve and address the issue at hand,” Harris said. “I’ve seen no evidence of that.”

McConnell, speaking before the announcement from Senate Democrats Tuesday, said Americans “deserve better than a partisan stalemate.”

“Tomorrow, we’ll find out whether our Democratic colleagues share our ambition, or whether they choose to duck this issue and leave the country in the lurch,” the Kentucky Republican said.

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