Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) faces a tough call on whether to let a Republican-backed police reform bill advance on the Senate floor next week even though it falls well short of what Democrats want.
Allowing the measure to move forward could give Democrats a chance to incorporate some of their changes and increase the odds of getting meaningful reforms signed into law.
But doing so could result in a law that leaves Democratic-allied groups disappointed, while at the same time handing President Trump a key legislative victory in the lead-up to Election Day.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, but 60 votes are needed to advance legislation on the floor before a final vote.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lead sponsor of the bill and the only African American Republican senator, says Schumer is preventing some Democrats from supporting the GOP legislation.
Scott said “there was some optimism” among Senate Democratic colleagues when he told them about the reforms that would be included in his bill.
“They just, unfortunately, said that much of the leadership wants them to stay off the bill no matter how close or good it is,” he said. “That’s exactly what they told me.”
Schumer argued Wednesday that Scott’s bill “does not rise to the moment,” adding that it is “much narrower and much less effective” than a joint Senate-House Democratic bill unveiled last week in response to the nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.
He also said his Democratic colleagues worry that if they allow the GOP bill to proceed to the floor for debate, they’ll have little chance to amend it.
A Democratic senator said Schumer has asked colleagues to “hang on a minute” so the Democratic conference can decide collectively what to do.
“I think for Sen. Schumer to say to senators, ‘Don’t just immediately say, “I’m on this,”’ is reasonable,” the senator added.
A Senate Democratic aide said Schumer “outlined the Senate GOP bill to some of his caucus and explained the glaring differences between” it and the Democratic bill.
“Conversations continue about how to best ensure a strong bill – which the GOP bill as written is not – becomes law,” the source added.
Schumer appeared undecided Wednesday afternoon when asked whether he would allow colleagues to vote in favor of the motion to proceed to the GOP police bill next week.
“It’s a bad bill, it doesn’t come close and we’re figuring out what to do with it,” he said.
No Democratic senator has said they will vote to allow debate on the measure.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a moderate, said he wanted to back legislation that has strong bipartisan support.
“I’m hoping the two can get together. That’s my greatest desire,” he said of Scott and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the lead sponsors of the joint Senate-House Democratic police reform package.
“There’s good in both bills, there really is. I think something will be done,” Manchin added.
Democrats faced a similar conundrum in 2018 when they had to decide whether to back a criminal justice reform bill that fell short of their objectives.
Ultimately, they decided to back the legislation, which was primarily negotiated by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Durbin on Wednesday said the resulting law, the First Step Act, had about “60 percent of what I originally offered.”
Trump recently touted the criminal justice reform legislation, which he signed into law in December 2018, as a major accomplishment.
“I keep hearing about ‘Oh, criminal justice reform.’ Everyone is trying to take the credit. On that one I will say we will take the full credit because they couldn’t have done it without us. I’m not sure, frankly, the previous administration tried. They may have but they certainly couldn’t get it done,” Trump said at a White House roundtable discussion last week.
Asked if he is bothered by Trump claiming credit for the law heading into November, Durbin responded: “Modesty is not one of his problems in life.”
Durbin said that at the time he was “shocked” Trump agreed to sign it. He gave credit to Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, for persuading the president to back it.
Fast forward 18 months later and Senate Republicans are now eager to pass a police reform bill, giving Democrats a good chance to get at least some of their proposals signed into law.
One GOP senator close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “The goal is to get a bipartisan result and not a messaging bill.”
Democrats acknowledge that while the GOP-proposed reforms are modest, they’re better than nothing.
Furthermore, there’s a chance Democrats would be able to strengthen the GOP proposal with amendments if floor debate is allowed to proceed.
Failing that, Democrats would have a chance to beef up the final version of the bill during negotiations between the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House if the measure makes it through the upper chamber.
But there are a host of risks to working with Republicans.
One potential pitfall is that McConnell (R-Ky.) could block amendments to the bill.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a moderate, says he wants some assurances from McConnell that Democrats will be able to offer amendments.
Another risk is that it becomes law without any significant changes, leaving Democratic-allied civil rights groups disappointed as Trump and McConnell take a victory lap.
McConnell is facing a potentially competitive reelection bid this fall and his home state has been roiled by civil unrest after plain-clothed police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor while conducting a raid of her home with a no-knock warrant.
Durbin, a member of the Judiciary Committee, noted that police reform advocacy groups feel very strongly about eliminating the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which protects officers accused of civil rights violations from lawsuits.
“The groups that support our bill really feel strongly about qualified immunity, whether or not a policeman who is guilty of misconduct can be held liable in a civil court — a civil court — for damages to the family that lost a loved one, a breadwinner,” he said. “It’s a big difference between us.”
The Scott bill does not eliminate such immunity.
The GOP legislation is largely in line with an executive order issued by President Trump on Tuesday that prioritizes federal funding for police departments that restrict chokeholds outside of life-threatening situations, which former Obama administration official and CNN commentator Van Jones called “a good thing” and “a step in the right direction.”
The GOP legislation would incentivize police departments to severely restrict deadly techniques such as chokeholds, increase police access to grants for body-worn cameras and de-escalation techniques, and require law enforcement agencies to maintain employment and disciplinary records for 30 years and share them with other agencies and police departments.
But it falls short of many of the reforms included in the Democratic bill.
Schumer criticized Scott’s measure for failing to ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. Instead, the measure requires data to be compiled on such warrants.
He also pointed out the Democratic bill would create a publicly available nationwide database on police misconduct so that abusive police officers can’t simply transfer to other departments when they get into trouble. Schumer argued the GOP proposal, by contrast, would keep such information shielded from public view.
Furthermore, he said, the Republican measure is “silent on racial profiling and militarization of local police departments.”