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Democrats to block Senate Republican bill on police practices

Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California are sponsoring the Senate version of House Democrats’ policing bill.
Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California are sponsoring the Senate version of House Democrats’ policing bill.Tom Williams/Pool/Getty Images/File 2020/Getty Images

Democrats will block a Republican policing reform bill in the Senate that they argue falls far short of what is needed to enforce accountability for state and local departments in dealing with racial disparities, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday.

He called the GOP proposal “deeply, fundamentally, and irrevocably flawed.” Schumer demanded bipartisan negotiations for a stronger bill that would address police brutality faced by racial minorities.

“It’s clear the Republican bill as-is will not get 60 votes,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The Republican majority has given the Senate a bad bill and proposed no credible way to sufficiently improve it.”

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Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has locked in a procedural vote on the GOP measure Wednesday. He told reporters that if Democrats refuse to advance the measure, he would keep open the option of returning to it later.

The House plans to vote on Democrats’ separate proposal Thursday.

A major sticking point is whether to continue protecting police officers from lawsuits. Democrats want to end the judicial doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields individual officers and government officials from being sued for damages unless they violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. The GOP bill doesn’t address that issue.

Both parties are under significant pressure to act amid a wave of protests and unrest following George Floyd’s May 25 death while under restraint by Minneapolis police. Democrats are calculating that they have more leverage on the issue to push for sweeping changes, including boosting the ability of people to sue police officers for violating their constitutional rights.

But blocking the legislation risks dooming prospects for policing legislation before the 2020 elections. The Senate will leave for a two-week recess late next week, and after business starts back up July 20, McConnell has indicated the chamber could turn next to another economic stimulus bill to address the effects of the pandemic. Later, the Senate has other business to tend to, including fiscal 2021 government spending bills.

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Schumer’s announcement came moments after McConnell called on Democrats to join with Republicans to begin debate on the Senate GOP legislation, saying that to do so was the only path to approving a final bill.

“We’re ready to make a law, not just make a point,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. Democrats have to decide if “they want to duck the issue and leave the country in the lurch.”

On qualified immunity, Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana said on Bloomberg Television he’s introducing a middle-ground bill that would make it easier to sue police officers in “egregious” situations such as the killing of Floyd.

“You have some ability to hold people accountable,” Braun said, while adding that his proposal would still prevent “frivolous” lawsuits. He said he’s worried that if Congress doesn’t do more than simply agreeing on “low-hanging fruit,” then “we won’t really solve the problem.”

Schumer and Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey are sponsoring the Senate version of House Democrats’ bill.

“The American people are not in the streets chanting we want more data, we want more data,” Booker said on the Senate floor. “The American people are not in the streets chanting give us a commission, give us a commission.”

“Don’t anyone dare suggest we are standing in the way of progress,” Harris said, adding that the GOP bill “has been thrown out to pay lip service” to the issue without taking actions that would save lives.

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Schumer, Harris, and Booker sent a letter to McConnell saying the GOP bill is “not salvageable” and calling for bipartisan talks.

“Let’s hope cooler heads prevail and Senator McConnell will bring a bill to the floor that can be worked on by the entire Senate,” second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters.

The Democratic and Republican proposals attempt to boost accountability and training for police officers and make lynching a crime for the first time. Both bills would establish a federal database to track use-of-force incidents involving state and local police officers — with some differences — and withhold some federal funds from those that don’t participate.

But they take different approaches to the use of choke holds on suspects, no-knock warrants in drug cases, use of force, body cameras, and the allocation of surplus military equipment to state and local police departments.