Election Day isn’t for another four months, but campaign politics is already halting critical work to reform police practices amid nationwide protests.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a Republican proposal to reform police practices, betting opposition to Sen. Tim Scott’s legislation from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP would give them the political cover to gain more leverage. House Democrats will likely go it alone on Thursday and pass their own bill.
Lawmakers say they still hope to reach a resolution to the partisan divide on how to establish more transparency and accountability for law enforcement after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks.
But the breakdown in the process bodes poorly for the rest of the year as Washington faces critical deadlines to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and avert yet another government shutdown this fall.
“Given that this bill is on life support, it’s difficult to imagine much if anything else getting done for the rest of the year except for the absolute, must-do pieces of legislation,” said Jim Manley, who was a senior aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “... There’s very little if any trust, which again goes to a deeper problem with the Senate: The body that’s built on comity has broken down.”
Partisan sniping started hours before the failed procedural vote, which fell four votes short after only Sens. Doug Jones, Joe Manchin, and Angus King joined Republicans to begin debate on Scott’s legislation.
“When our nation needs bipartisan solutions, they’re staging partisan theater,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech Wednesday morning. “This is political nonsense elevated to an art form.”
“I think the shoe is on the other foot,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer rejoined. “I think the politics here is that Leader McConnell wants to show he's doing something and get nothing done.”
Voting for the November election will begin early as states expand mail-in balloting. President Trump and nearly half of the Senate Republican conference are up for reelection.
Scott, in a floor speech, said Republicans offered Democrats votes on as many as 20 amendments in hopes of moving the legislation one step closer to passage. But Democrats balked, refusing any of Republicans’ offers behind closed doors.
“They cannot allow this party to be seen as a party that reaches out to all communities in this nation,” Scott said of Democratic efforts to stall his bill. “... This process is not broken because of the legislation. This is a broken process beyond that one piece of legislation.”
Attention on policing reform turns again to the House, which will hold a vote on its version Thursday. It is almost certain to pass, as 230 members have signed onto the legislation as of Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said she was open to a conference committee between her chamber’s bill and the Senate Republican bill, but that door has closed.
“Their bill is a nonstarter,” Pelosi said on MSNBC Wednesday. “I had hoped and kept the door open to the thought that maybe they'll come up with something that could be malleable or reconcilable, but they haven’t.”
Senate Democrats say they want the Judiciary Committee to examine both Scott’s proposal and a bill from Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker in order to send a bipartisan measure to the floor. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, a Judiciary member, pushed back Wednesday against the idea that their opposition is simply election-year politics.
“I’m certain it can be done if it’s done in a bipartisan manner,” Durbin said. “I'm suggesting the Senate Judiciary Committee; there may be another vehicle. But if there’s a bipartisan group working, I think something can be done.”
But Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has rejected the idea of taking it up, saying Democrats would raise the same issues there as they are now.
“If we can’t do it now, I don’t know when we’ll ever do it,” Graham said Wednesday. “... It’s pretty clear to me it’s not a process as much as a political calculation that they don’t want to engage on this issue until after the election.”
In the meantime, Congress has other must-pass items on its plate that will require the bipartisan cooperation missing from the police-reform talks. McConnell on Wednesday teed up floor votes on the annual National Defense Authorization Act, a $741 billion bill that passed out of the Armed Services Committee by a vote of 25-2 earlier this month.
But even that process has its political hot potatoes. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley on Wednesday introduced an amendment that would remove Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s language directing the Defense Department to rename military assets honoring the Confederacy.
“This latest effort to unilaterally rename bases and remove war memorials, all behind closed doors, smacks of the 'cancel culture' the Left wants to impose on the nation,” Hawley said. “Any discussion about renaming bases should be had in the light of day, out in the open, and it should involve military families, veterans, and state and local stakeholders.”
The annual appropriations process is also on ice. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy said last week they were at odds over Democrats’ desire for amendments related to the pandemic.
The Senate hasn’t passed any of the 12 appropriations bills requiring Trump’s approval before Sept. 30, when government agencies would begin to shut down without further funding.
“McConnell is going to have to realize that there will be people who want to have some votes on the problems that everybody sees in the COVID legislation,” Leahy said on Wednesday.
Lawmakers are eyeing another coronavirus aid package next month, when Republicans have said they’ll consider more relief for the government and the private sector in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 123,000 Americans.
Congress is not without its recent legislative accomplishments. Just last week, the Senate voted 73-25 to pass a sweeping public-lands-preservation package. The House is slated to take it up next month.
Police-reform debates so far are following the same track that passed the CARES Act in March. Senate Democrats blocked the initial Republican proposal to bolster economic aid to struggling families and businesses, leading to backroom talks that produced a 96-0 vote for the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Schumer said Wednesday he remains optimistic about advancing a police-reform bill this year, citing how the CARES Act played out in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell has a way of trying to bully us around, and he thinks he can get his way,” Schumer said at a Wednesday press conference. “And if past is prologue, all this year and last year when he tried on a major issue, our caucus held together, and each time he came back.”