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House Approves Police Reform Bill, But Issue Stalled Amid Partisan Standoff

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, joined by House Democrats spaced for social distancing, spoke at a press conference on the House East Front Steps of the Capitol ahead of the House vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
Carolyn Kaster
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, joined by House Democrats spaced for social distancing, spoke at a press conference on the House East Front Steps of the Capitol ahead of the House vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.

House Democrats made good on their plans to respond to a national outcry for reform of the nation's law enforcement departments, with the chamber approving wide-ranging efforts to overhaul the way police do their jobs.

The legislation's prospects, however, are short-circuited by a lack of bipartisan consensus on an ultimate plan. Democrats developed their bill without GOP input, leaving Republicans to push their own counter proposal in the Senate. Without any efforts to work on a bipartisan compromise the issue is likely stalled, potentially until after the fall election.

Nevertheless, Democrats said the moment marked a victory in the ongoing, national conversation raising alarms of misconduct, brutality and systemic racism in policing. The House approved the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by a vote of 236-181 one month to the day the bill's namesake was killed. Three Republicans supported the legislation.

"Americans from every walk of life and corner of the country have been marching, protesting and demanding that this moment of national agony become one of national action," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said from the Capitol's East front steps ahead of passage. "Today, with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the House is honoring his life and the lives of all killed by police brutality, and pledging: never again."

Pelosi asked the Congressional Black Caucus to lead the effort on the legislation, introduced two weeks after Floyd was was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis police custody. Soon after, Floyd's brother, Philonise, testified in a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Buoyed by support from civil rights organizations, Democrats are betting their legislation could get a shot at passage should they perform well in the November elections.

Their bill drew most of the caucus as sponsors to ensure floor passage. And it marks one of the most comprehensive efforts in modern times to re-imagine law enforcement departments across the country.

The measure bans federal police from using chokeholds and other dangerous restraints, as well as no-knock warrants in drug-related cases. It also lowers legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct.

"We are supposed to be the beacon of hope for human rights in other countries and the Justice In Policing Act is a bill for human rights in our country," said California Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Senate Republicans separately fast-tracked their own plan for police reform, but Democrats blocked the effort from reaching the floor for debate on Wednesday. Due to Senate rules the GOP needed 60 votes to advance the bill, but in the closely divided chamber they fell short of the support required from Democrats or Independents. Democratic leaders there insisted the Republican bill, drafted by the lone GOP Black Senator Tim Scott, was not salvageable, so they resisted calls to engage in a process to debate and amend it.

On Thursday, House Republicans cried foul, slamming Democrats for thwarting the Senate bill and also opposing GOP amendments in the House.

"From committee to floor, not one Republican amendment is going to be allowed. Never consulted us on the creation of this bill. I've reached out to those on the Democratic side explaining that I wanted to make law," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters. "I wanted to work together. And I still do."

Scott lamented the setback after the failure of his bill to advance on Wednesday dealt a significant blow to the prospects for any deal on the issue.

"Today, we lost a vote on a piece of legislation that would have led to systemic change in the relationship between communities of color and the law enforcement community," Scott said on the Senate floor. "We would have broken the concept in this nation that you have to be for law enforcement or for communities of color. That is a false binary choice. My friends on the other side just said no."

The Senate Republican proposal steered away from outright bans, and changes to the legal shield that protects police from punishment in certain misconduct cases. Instead, it focused on training for de-escalation tactics, new federal reporting requirements and incentives for the use of police body cameras.

Scott's bill, which drew most of his chamber's GOP members as co-sponsors, also included several Democratic provisions, such as the creation of a national database to track police misconduct and a provision to make lynching a federal crime.

Scott said he had tried to negotiate an "open amendment" process with Democrats, but they refused, saying there needed to be bipartisan talks on the bill before they could green-light floor debate.

In the end, only two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, and one independent, Angus King of Maine, joined the Republicans in their procedural motion.

Democrats insist that public pressure will force congressional Republicans to want to revisit the issue and move forward with a bipartisan measure.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 26, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Republican Kevin McCarthy as a Democrat.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.