U.S. lawmakers will attempt to pass two police reform bills this week, a rare feat of congressional legislating in a presidential election year. The Senate will likely tackle a Republican proposal Wednesday, while the House of Representatives is set to pass a Democratic measure Thursday. Both are attempts to respond to weeks of historic nationwide protests over the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody.
Many of the protesters have called for a dramatic policy solution to partially address their concerns about racial discrimination in U.S. law enforcement — a call to "defund the police."
While that call to shift funding from local law enforcement to social services is not covered in House Democrats' legislation, the measure includes many other ambitious proposals that Democrats say would shift policing in the United States from a "warrior" model to that of a public guardian.
Republicans are calling for a very different set of proposals that may be difficult to reconcile with Democrats.
President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday, "The Democrat House wants to pass a Bill this week that will destroy our police. Republican Congressmen & Congresswomen will hopefully fight hard to defeat it. We must protect and cherish our police, they keep us safe!"
Here is a look at the issues up for debate and their chances of becoming law:
Can the U.S. Congress "defund the police?" How much can Congress do to address this issue?
Funding at the federal level (money appropriated by the U.S. Congress) is just one part of the funding local police departments around the United States receive. Most of their funding is derived from state and local sources, so even if the political will was there, Congress could not act to completely defund a police force.
Democrats have largely tamped down calls to completely defund police departments, advocating instead for some shifting in funding priorities to better support social services.
"I think it can be used as a distraction, and that's my concern," said Congresswoman Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She spoke earlier this month about calls to defund the police. "I think the intent behind it is something that I support — the idea that communities need investments."
What is in the House Democrats' legislation?
"This is Congress's most comprehensive effort in decades to substantially address police misconduct by taking on issues — critical issues — affecting black and brown communities," Vanita Gupta, a former Obama administration principal deputy assistant attorney general on civil rights, told lawmakers earlier this month.
The legislation would create local policing task forces and encourage best-practice strategies such as police body cameras and improved training for law enforcement.
"The bill would make it easier for the federal government to successfully prosecute police misconduct cases. It would ban chokeholds, end racial and religious profiling, encourage prosecutions independent from local police and eliminate the dubious court-made doctrine of qualified immunity for law enforcement," House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said early this month.
Putting an end to qualified immunity — a legal principle that allows law enforcement protection from civil claims unless they have violated clearly established laws or constitutional rights — will likely be the most significant sticking point in negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
What is in the Senate Republicans' proposal?
Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, has taken the lead on crafting the proposal for his party.
"Too often, we're having a discussion in this nation about, 'Are you supporting the law enforcement community or are you supporting communities of color?'" Scott said last week, describing his approach to police reforms. "This is a false binary choice. The answer to the question of, 'Which side do you support?' It's, 'I support America.' And if you support America, you support restoring the confidence that communities of color have in institutions of authority."
The Republicans' proposal would provide incentives for enhanced training and accountability for police officers, while penalizing departments that do not use body cameras. It also tackles the controversial use of chokeholds — the method that was utilized in the death of George Floyd — by leveraging federal funds to induce local police departments to end the practice.
One significant sticking point could be the issue of qualified immunity. The White House has repeatedly said that ending the legal doctrine of shielding police officers from civil lawsuits if they violate constitutional rights is a "non-starter."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week, "By removing qualified immunity, what you're essentially doing is not allowing police to do their job. There would be a decrease in policing in this country. Our streets would not be safe. What President Trump has done is worked with law enforcement to improve law enforcement to ensure that the bad cops that exist are pushed out of the system."
What happens next with the legislation?
Senate Democrats have the option to block consideration of the Republican police reform proposal or to allow the chamber to move ahead with debate in the hope that they can offer their own amendments altering the proposal.
Any legislation passed in the Republican-majority Senate would have to be reconciled with the measure that will almost certainly pass the Democratic-majority House Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week she is open to that process.
"We would like to end up in conference, because that's how Congress works its will," Pelosi said last week. "The House acts, the Senate acts, and you go to conference and try to reconcile the legislation."
But lawmakers are running out of time to tackle the proposal. Senate lawmakers are scheduled to return to their home states for two weeks in July and then for almost the entire month of August and the beginning of September. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he is concerned Democrats could lose momentum on achieving results.
"We need this whole bill put on the floor and debated, the whole Justice in Policing Act," Schumer, a New Yorker, told reporters earlier this month.
Historically, Congress rarely passes ambitious legislation in the months leading up to an election. But U.S. public opinion has shifted so rapidly on this issue, it appears to be in lawmakers' best interests to address at least some of the problems.
According to Civiqs, an online research polling firm, U.S. public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased as much in the two weeks since Floyd's death as it had in the past two years.