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There’s danger in Democrats’ gamble on policing

Democratic leaders must decide whether to accept a forthcoming Republican proposal or hold out and make an election issue of it

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress kneel inside Emancipation Hall as they observe a moment of silence to honor George Floyd and other victims of racial injustice on June 8, 2020. The members of Congress are wearing Kente cloth stoles.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress kneel inside Emancipation Hall as they observe a moment of silence to honor George Floyd and other victims of racial injustice on June 8, 2020. The members of Congress are wearing Kente cloth stoles. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Speaking on the Senate floor on June 10, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer worried the moment of national unity surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the consensus that Congress must do something to protect African Americans from police brutality, would pass without a new law. He blamed his colleagues across the aisle.

“Senate Republicans make the right noises — ‘Let’s study it. Let’s consider it.’ — but never follow through,” he said, predicting that the GOP would ultimately take a pass on action, as they had before in response to the plague of mass shootings.

But it appears now that the decision on whether there will be a new law this year to combat police brutality may well rest with Schumer and his fellow Democrats in charge of the House. They have to decide whether to accept a forthcoming Republican proposal that won’t go as far they would like, or hold out and make an election issue of it in the hopes of winning unified control of the government in November. 

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At that point, Democrats would have a better chance, though no guarantee, of enacting the far-reaching policing overhaul they offered on June 8.

Judging by Schumer’s comments, as well as those of leading House Democrats, they’re planning on running for reelection on their response to Floyd’s death, under the knee of the white police officer Derek Chauvin.

“We need wholesale reform, not piecemeal reform,” Schumer said. “We cannot approach this debate by cherry-picking one or two reforms and calling the job complete. It’s my worry that’s what our Republican colleagues intend to do.”

It was much the same from James E. Clyburn, the South Carolina representative who is the House Democrats’ whip. He said on the CQ on Congress podcast on June 9 that he had not discussed a policing bill with his senator, Tim Scott, the lone African American Republican in that chamber. That’s significant because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tasked Scott with preparing a GOP policing bill. And Clyburn seemed to reject the idea that Senate Republicans could partner with the House, saying that “as an institution the Senate seems to be dedicated to turning the clock back.”

The Democrats, of course, may be merely staking out a tough posture for negotiations. The bill they offered combines proposals developed over years by representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus with input from the two African American Democrats in the Senate, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.

It includes everything Democrats want in a policing overhaul, from bipartisan ideas like banning chokeholds and restricting the transfer of military equipment to police departments to proposals that are nonstarters for many Republicans, like barring police officers from using force except to avoid death or serious bodily injury and taking away officers’ protection from civil lawsuits. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said representatives, now on a monthlong district work period, will return to Washington on June 25 to vote on it.

If Democrats will not compromise, it could lead to the inaction Schumer says he fears.

There’s no guarantee that Democrats will maintain House control and win the White House and Senate in November — and, even if they do, that they will command a large enough Senate majority to pass the sweeping measure they’ve proposed.

By contrast, with compromise, Congress this year might pass a law to gather data on police use of force and officer misconduct in order to prevent cops who’ve lost their jobs for misconduct in one department from getting a policing job elsewhere, to improve police training, and to expand the use of body cameras that record interactions between police officers and citizens.

Scott said last week that those proposals were on the table. And he rejected criticism that he’s insincere in his desire to help, or a pawn in a GOP plan to shelve the issue. “Let me get this straight … you DON’T want the person who has faced racial profiling by police, been pulled over dozens of times, or been speaking out for YEARS drafting this?” he tweeted.

Floyd’s death, combined with President Donald Trump’s inflammatory tweets about Black Lives Matter protesters, and polls showing that large majorities of Americans want a policing overhaul, have put the congressional GOP on the defensive and prompted a softening in tone.

The House Judiciary Committee has this year been a forum for caustic debate. But on June 10, as the panel considered how to improve policing, Republicans took a more accommodating stance. “Let’s work together to make America the great place — to continue to make America the greatest nation ever,” said the panel’s normally argumentative ranking Republican, Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Just a day later, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized Democrats for declining to involve Republicans in drafting their bill: “Despite there being common ground, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi once again politicized what could have been a moment to lead and show the country we are capable of putting our differences aside when the stakes are this high.”

Republicans have begun to develop a fallback plan if there is no deal to be had on policing. They are preparing to seize on the call of progressive activists to “defund the police.”

What the slogan means depends on the person endorsing it. Some of the activists say they want to abolish the police entirely, others that they want to reduce police department budgets and direct more money to community building, mental health care and drug abuse treatment. 

Polls show little support for the idea. Still, local Democrats have begun to endorse the call, with Minneapolis city councilors saying they would disband their force, while Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti — the mayors of New York City and Los Angeles, respectively — pledged to reduce their police budgets.

On June 8, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh hosted a briefing for reporters to deride Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for failing to reject the progressives’ cause. (Biden rejected it later that day.)

In the Senate, McConnell indicated Republicans would seek to tie Democrats to the slogan. “The vast majority of people in law enforcement across our country are not evil, are not racist, do not wake every morning looking for violence,” he said, calling the proposal to defund police “outlandish.”

Judging by Democrats’ reaction, it’s not a debate they want to have. Schumer told reporters “every city needs a police department,” while Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass said of defunding police that she could not “imagine that happening in a federal way.” Democratic leaders avoided using the slogan themselves.

That underscored the danger in not grabbing a chance at compromise when it’s available. Public policy issues rarely remain front of mind for long, and the course of political debates is rarely predictable. What now seems like a slam dunk may prove otherwise five months hence. 

A year ago, consider that Democrats expected to run for office on the wings of a broad bill that aims to bolster ethics in government and root out corporate influence in elections. Then they figured Trump’s impeachment for pressuring the government of Ukraine to investigate Biden would be issue No. 1 on Nov. 3. But the coronavirus eclipsed that, and now so has police brutality. 

Recent polls suggest Democrats have a lead heading toward Election Day, but there is risk to the African American victims of police violence in banking on that and waiting on legislating till next year.

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