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As midterms approach, House Dems vote to fund the police

The House passes a package of bills boosting funding for small departments, mental-health professionals, and violence prevention as Democrats push back against “soft on crime” campaign attacks.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Sept. 22, 2022, 7:16 p.m.

House Democrats are hoping to shrug off the “defund the police” slogan, passing a series of bills providing money to small departments and additional training in a legislative package shortly before the midterms.

The four-bill package would provide additional federal funding to departments with fewer than 125 law enforcement officers, fund community violence-intervention programs, boost investigations of violent incidents, and train mental-health professionals to respond to emergencies, among other provisions.

Vulnerable House Democrats will now go back to their districts for the October sprint to Election Day with a legislative counterpoint to increasing GOP criticism that they are soft on crime.

“And the bottom line is, if you go to districts like mine and members like me, we’ve always been supportive of law enforcement, and I think this just makes it clear,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey told reporters Wednesday.

The package is months in the making and took the cooperation of both wings of the caucus, with moderate Gottheimer sponsoring the bill funding small departments and progressive Rep. Katie Porter heading up the legislation funding mental-health professionals. It was that caucus-wide cooperation that put the legislation over the top and avoided a last-minute revolt from a small portion of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who wanted more police-accountability language in the package.

Now it goes to the Senate, which passed a bill similar to Gottheimer’s, introduced by Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, by unanimous consent in August. It’s still unclear if the Senate will take up the package or vote on each item individually, as the House did.

“I think that the differences between the pieces of legislation are minor, and I’m optimistic we’ll get this out of the Senate if we get it out of the House,” Gottheimer said of his legislation.

For two years, Republicans have lashed Democrats over the “defund the police" slogan, which grew to prominence following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020. Most House Democrats never adopted the call to strip funding from police departments, though some did.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to put a lid on the phrase in February, when on ABC’s This Week she told host George Stephanopoulos that “‘defund the police’ is dead” and the slogan was “not the position of the Democratic Party.”

But GOP attacks over the issue persisted, especially as crime across the nation continued its post-pandemic uptick. Republicans running in competitive districts have run ads tying Democratic policies to the increase in crime.

In recent days, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the primary House GOP super PAC, released a bevy of ads attacking Democratic candidates such as progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who is running in Oregon’s 5th District after defeating moderate Rep. Kurt Schrader in a May primary, and moderate Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, over increasing crime or the “defund the police” slogan.

Some Democrats, like Luria, have pushed back with ads touting support from law enforcement.

“Elaine Luria is a friend to public safety; she gets it,” a gravelly-voiced “Sheriff Mark” says in a recent Luria ad.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, who is in a tight race in New Jersey’s 7th district against challenger Tom Kean, said Gottheimer’s bill will help his constituents.

“That’s all we’ve got are small police departments,” he said.

Malinowski and other Democrats are hoping to highlight Republican opposition to the package, turning the tables on accusations that they don't back the blue. Malinowski pointed to recent GOP criticisms of the FBI following the execution of a search warrant at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home as authorities searched for missing classified documents. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted “Defund the FBI” shortly after the FBI search.

“I think it will help us further highlight the point that Democrats are the only party actually pushing to support the police right now, in a moment when leading Republicans in the country are calling federal law enforcement Gestapo and America a banana republic because they suddenly discovered that the rule of law applies to their side as well,” Malinowski said.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the House Democrats' campaign arm, echoed Malinowski.

“What it means is we’re walking the walk and we are continuing to fund good community policing while the Republicans continue to undermine the FBI, call for defunding it, and play games and lip service to supporting law enforcement,” Maloney said.

Gotthemer’s Invest to Protect bill drew strongly bipartisan support, with 153 Republican votes. Legislation from Rep. Val Demings boosting investigative resources for violent crimes drew 30 GOP votes. Demings, a former Orlando police chief, is in a close race against Sen. Marco Rubio for his Florida seat.

The other two bills drew few Republican ayes.

Republicans on Thursday criticized the process by which some of the legislation came to the floor, skipping the committee process. Others said the bills don’t go far enough in funding police, or that control of police funding would be better in local hands. Some GOP members called it pre-midterm messaging legislation.

“Crime doesn’t concern House Democrats, but losing support before an important election, that scares them to death, and so we have these bills brought hurriedly to the floor today,” Rep. Tom McClintock said on the House floor.

Thursday’s votes were the culmination of negotiations between Gottheimer and progressives such as Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and others.

“I think this is the beginning of a process, hopefully, that we can continue to engage in,” Jayapal said of the bipartisan talks between progressives and moderate Democrats, factions that have frequently clashed during this Congress.

Not all progressives were on board with the deal, though, as a handful briefly held up progress on a rule allowing for debate on the package. The group—which included Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, a Black Lives Matter activist before being elected to Congress—had issues with both the process and substance of Gottheimer’s legislation.

“Where is police accountability? When does that happen? When does that come into play? When does that prioritize?” Bush said to reporters Thursday.

Omar, a member of the progressive “Squad,” stood out among supporters of the package, as her colleagues in the group opposed the bill.

“It was an ask from two of our progressive caucus members whose bills were tied up in this process,” Omar told reporters during a post-vote press scrum with Jaypaal. “Their ask to me was to try to find a way to move this forward. They worked on trying to get their bills passed for a really long time, and they just needed to cross the finish line.”

Jayapal said that the bills don’t exclude the need for the Senate to take up the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a much more expansive overhaul of policing nationwide. The current package of bills, she said, supplements the broader call for police accountability.

“We have continued to say law enforcement has a role, but they can’t do it alone,” Jayapal told reporters. “What our communities need is mental-health support. They need training. If there are going to be people arriving on the scene, we want them to be trained in how to de-escalate, not escalate.”

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