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Senate Republicans unveil policing overhaul alternative

Legislation overlaps with some of House Democrats’ measure

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., center, accompanied by, from left, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a news conference to announce a Republican police overhaul bill on Wednesday.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., center, accompanied by, from left, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a news conference to announce a Republican police overhaul bill on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans’ policing bill unveiled Wednesday includes use-of-force data collection and de-escalating training provisions that have bipartisan support. But the legislation leaves out language Democrats are pushing to ban racial profiling and make it easier to sue police officers for misconduct.

“The George Floyd incident certainly accelerated this conversation. And we find ourselves in a place with a package that I think speaks to the families that I spoke with yesterday who lost loved ones: We hear you,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who led a Senate Republican working group to draft the bill, said at a press conference announcing the measure.

The Senate will attempt to take up the bill next week after completing two judicial nominations already queued up, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at the event.

“We’re serious about making a law here,” the Kentucky Republican said. “This is not about trying to create partisan differences. This is about coming together and getting an outcome.”

Highlights include provisions to increase reporting of use-of-force incidents and no-knock warrants, incentivize police departments to ban chokeholds and use body cameras, have the Justice Department develop and implement de-escalation training, and to reauthorize federal law enforcement grant programs for five years.

The GOP announcement came just before the House Judiciary Committee started marking up Democrats’ more expansive policing overhaul. The full House is scheduled to take up that measure on June 25.

McConnell has called the House bill a “nonstarter,” saying it would federalize too many issues that should be left to state and local governments.

“It’s basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington,” he told reporters Tuesday.

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The Republicans who participated in the working group with Scott — Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — all spoke at the press conference Wednesday.

Republican Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, a former police officer who is introducing a House companion measure, also spoke.

‘A lot of overlap’

Graham said he wants to work with Democrats but that can’t happen if they keep blaming Republicans for inaction on this issue. He threw some blame back at Democrats by saying no policing changes had come out of President Barack Obama’s two terms.

Still, Graham said he thinks there is room for compromise.

“There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s some real differences,” he said. “And how do you hammer out those real differences? You talk to each other.”

After a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic Wednesday, Graham said several Democrats had approached him about working together and he had become more confident about the prospects for a bipartisan deal.

Democrats’ bill contains a blanket ban on racial profiling, but most other provisions would mandate changes only for federal law enforcement. The measure would place conditions on federal grant money for state and local law enforcement to encourage them to adopt similar changes.

The Republican bill also would use grant money to incentivize state and local police to adopt changes. For example, it would withhold federal grant money from police departments that don’t ban chokeholds. Democrats’ bill includes a similar provision, but it would also make using such tactics that cut off breathing against someone because of their race a civil rights violation.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday issued an executive order that directs the attorney general to only allocate federal grant funding to state and local law enforcement agencies that have credentials from independent organizations he certifies. DOJ would only certify credentialing organizations that at a minimum ensure that law enforcement agencies comply with use-of-force laws and prohibit use of chokeholds “except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law.”

Both parties want to improve data collection on use-of-force incidents. Scott said only 40 percent of law enforcement agencies are currently reporting that information to the FBI.

The GOP bill would incentivize all jurisdictions to conduct that reporting but would not create a central database because Trump’s executive order directs DOJ to do so. The database would track excessive use-of-force incidents and cases in which police officers have been fired, de-certified or convicted for on-duty conduct.

Democrats’ legislation would require DOJ to set up a centralized database and mandate that state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal grant money report all data on use of force.

Trump’s executive order also calls for legislation that would use grant money to incentivize, among other things, training and use-of-force protocols that emphasize de-escalation techniques. Both the Republican and the Democratic bills have provisions to do that.

The Republican bill would also require DOJ to develop and implement de-escalation training.

Democrats’ bill goes a bit further, as it would mandate that federal law enforcement and state and local law enforcement receiving federal grant money conduct racial and religious bias training and specifies that deadly force can only be used as a last resort after de-escalation techniques.

Republicans and Democrats both would use grant funding to incentivize jurisdictions that don’t already have body camera programs to implement them. But Democrats’ bill would go further in requiring federal uniformed police officers to wear body cameras.

Both parties’ bills include anti-lynching language that would make it a federal offense to conspire to commit a hate crime. The House and Senate have both passed stand-alone measures with the anti-lynching language, but because they had different bill names the measure has yet to reach Trump’s desk. Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul is objecting because he feels the language is overly broad.

Key differences

There are a few provisions in the GOP policing bill that are not in Democrats’ proposal, like ones to increase penalties for falsifying police reports and to create a national commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.

Democrats’ bill also has several provisions not in the GOP measure. A key one they’re pushing would relax the qualified immunity doctrine that shields police from lawsuits for actions performed on the job.

Scott called the qualified immunity provision a “poison pill,” but a few Republicans have expressed interest in making it easier to sue police for misconduct.

Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun told reporters he plans to introduce qualified immunity legislation next week, probably on Tuesday, and that he’s received interest in the bill from several Republicans and Democrats. The bill will not fully eliminate qualified immunity, because that’s a nonstarter with White House, he said.

“It would, in essence, protect anyone whose constitutional rights have been breached,” Braun said, noting that would give families of victims of police killings like those of George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks the resources to seek damages. “It will also try to keep protection in there to avoid frivolous lawsuits, which have become so pandemic across the country, across all sectors. So it’s a straddle to keep the best of both worlds.”

Scott’s bill, however, will be the starting point for Senate negotiations. McConnell said he plans to file cloture on the motion to proceed and see if Democrats decide to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor or let it go forward and advocate for amendments.

“What I envision here is an effort to make a law, and I’m fully aware that it takes 60 votes to get something out of the Senate,” McConnell said Tuesday. “So, it will really be up to them to decide how they want to handle this. They can either shoot it down as insufficient or be willing to take the risk to go to the bill and see what changes, if any, we can all agree to in order to get to 60.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Tuesday said Democrats would decide what approach to take after seeing Scott’s bill. Last week he said Senate Democrats wanted to debate the full House package and they would oppose piecemeal efforts. 

Speaking on the floor Wednesday after Republicans unveiled their bill, Schumer indicated that Democrats might support the motion to proceed to the bill despite feeling the measure is inadequate. “I will be talking to my caucus about the best way to strengthen it,” he said. “The Republican bill has a long way to go to meet this moment.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC Tuesday that she hopes Congress can compromise, but she was concerned that McConnell had dismissed the House bill as a nonstarter.

“For the leader of the Senate to say, ‘It’s going nowhere, we won’t even — we don’t want any of that,’ is really disgraceful, and really ignores the concerns of the American people,” the California Democrat said. “We all know that we need to have guidelines.  We need to have training.  We need to have a database.  We need all of those things, but we also need to have some serious legislation to make sure it happens nationally.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this story.

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