A key vote advancing major police reform legislation in the U.S. Senate failed Wednesday, after Congressional Democrats blocked debate on a Republican proposal they called "flawed."
U.S. lawmakers have been racing to craft legislation that would address demands heard in weeks of nationwide protests in response to the May 25 death in police custody of George Floyd. The Democratic-majority U.S. House is set to vote later this week on the Justice in Policing Act but efforts to pass the Republican proposal by the chamber's only black Republican senator, Tim Scott, appears to be stalled.
Democrats blocked the procedural move to advance the Republican bill to a process that would have allowed debate on the bill by a vote of 55-45.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued on the Senate floor Wednesday shortly ahead of the vote that Democrats could not salvage the bill.
"The harsh fact of the matter is the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform," he said. If they had voted to advance debate on the bill, Democrats would have had the option to offer amendments altering the measure.
In a letter Tuesday to Senate Republicans, Schumer and Senate Democrats laid out five points of concern about the legislation.
Democrats said they objected to the measure's failures to put accountability and transparency measures in place in police departments, to sufficiently address collection of data on policing, and to create a national standard for use of force. In the letter, Democrats also wrote the justice act "does nothing to end harmful policing practices, like racial and religious profiling, no-knock warrants in drug cases and the use of chokeholds and carotid holds."
No-knock warrants were a factor in the death of 27-year-old Breonna Taylor earlier this year, while police use of chokeholds came under renewed scrutiny after a procedure utilized by officers who detained George Floyd.
Call for amendments
Scott said Democrats' concerns about the legislation could have been addressed by advancing the bill to the debate stage.
"My response was a simple one," Scott said on the Senate floor just ahead of the vote. "Let's have five amendments on those things. If we can get the votes on these two sides of the chamber, we should include that in the legislation. I met with other senators on the other side who said that there are more than five things that we need to have a conversation about. So I said let's include an amendment for every single issue you have."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Scott's proposal "a straightforward plan based on facts, data, and lived experience. It focuses on improving accountability and restoring trust. It addresses key issues like chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It expands reporting, and transparency in hiring, and training for de-escalation."
House Democrats' Justice in Policing Act leverages federal funding to encourage the de-militarization of police forces, while ending the legal doctrine shielding police officers from civil prosecution for their actions. An end to the so-called "qualified immunity" doctrine was already deemed a "non-starter" by the White House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously signaled she was open to a reconciliation process for the Senate and House proposals but drew Republican condemnation for comments she made in a CBS Radio interview Tuesday.
"For something to happen, they're going to have to face the reality of police brutality, the reality of the need for justice in policing, and the recognition that there are many, many good people in law enforcement, but not all and that we have to address those concerns," Pelosi said. "So far, they're trying to get away with murder, actually. The murder of George Floyd."
McConnell called the rhetoric around the bill "political nonsense elevated to an art form." Addressing Pelosi's remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, he said, "Two weeks ago, it was implied the Senate would have blood on our hands if we didn't take up police reform. Now, Democrats say Senator Scott and 48 other Senators have blood on our hands because we are trying to take up police reform."
Pelosi said Wednesday she would not apologize for her remarks.
Senate Democrats had called for McConnell to bring police reform legislation to the Senate floor for a vote before the chamber departs town for a two-week Independence Day holiday recess. Lawmakers are running out of time to reach an agreement on any legislation. Both the Senate and the House are in session for only a handful of weeks in July before departing once again for their traditional summer recess through the first week of September.
The chances of passing ambitious legislation on this controversial topic will be very small as lawmakers shift their attention in the fall to reelection races and the presidential election.