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Congress stalls on police overhaul bills, again

Months of negotiations still left Democrats and Republicans too far apart on key issues

From left, Rep. Karen Bass, Sen. Tim Scott, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Josh Gottheimer hold a news conference in May on bipartisan negotiations on police overhaul legislation.
From left, Rep. Karen Bass, Sen. Tim Scott, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Josh Gottheimer hold a news conference in May on bipartisan negotiations on police overhaul legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The effort to find a compromise on police overhaul legislation officially ran out of steam Wednesday, after months of negotiations failed to reach a version that could overcome Republican opposition to pass the Senate.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, one of three lead negotiators, announced that every possible pathway to a bipartisan deal had been exhausted, and “it remains out of reach right now.”

“The time has come to explore all other options to achieve meaningful and common sense policing reform,” Booker said in a statement, later emphasizing to reporters that his efforts were not ending.

But the announcement all but ends Democrats’ latest push to address law enforcement misconduct and racial bias — which generated nationwide protests in 2020 after a series of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and the public — in a deeply polarized Congress.

Last year, Democrats and Republicans pushed competing bills, then blamed each other when Congress passed nothing.

The Democratic-led House passed its bill in March that included provisions to ban chokeholds by federal officers and end qualified immunity for law enforcement against civil lawsuits, as well as create national standards for policing.

No deal

California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the lead sponsor of that bill, has been negotiating with Booker and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott on a compromise. The group blew through several deadlines and fought off relentless questioning about whether a deal could ever be reached.

Bass, in a news release, blamed Republicans for being “unwilling to compromise” even after negotiators crafted proposals with law enforcement and activists, some based on executive orders from former presidents.

“We accepted significant compromises, knowing that they would be a tough sell to our community, but still believing that we would be moving the needle forward on this issue,” Bass said. “But every time, more was demanded to the point that there would be no progress made in the bill that we were left discussing.”

Bass punted to President Joe Biden and the White House, calling on them to “use the full extent of their constitutionally mandated power to bring about meaningful police reform.”

Biden will explore potential executive actions on policing policy, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Last week, the Justice Department announced it would prohibit federal law enforcement agencies from using chokeholds and “carotid restraints” under most circumstances, and limit the use of “no knock” warrants, after an internal review of policies.

But that does not address the vast majority of encounters between the public and state and local law enforcement officers.

Obstacles remained

In the Senate, a policing bill would need Republican support to overcome a filibuster, a hurdle that has also stopped other priorities of the chamber’s Democratic majority.

Many Republicans oppose stripping officers of qualified immunity, which shields officers from legal action taken by victims and their families for alleged civil rights violations.

The negotiations ran into a variety of obstacles in recent months, including opposition from police unions.

Booker, in his statement, said Democrats secured the support of policing groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Chiefs of Police for his proposals.

“Unfortunately, even with this law enforcement support and further compromises we offered, there was still too wide a gulf with our negotiating partners and we faced significant obstacles to securing a bipartisan deal,” he said.

Scott said that Democrats had once again squandered a crucial opportunity for meaningful changes and that there were areas of agreement on banning chokeholds, limiting the transfer of military equipment and increased mental health resources. But he said Democrats were reverting to a partisan approach to score political points.

“Despite having plenty of agreement, Democrats said no because they could not let go of their push to defund our law enforcement,” Scott said in a release. “Once again, the Left let their misguided idea of perfect be the enemy of good, impactful legislation.”

House Democrats have also tried to wedge some policing proposals into the fiscal 2022 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, through restrictions on federal grants for state and local law enforcement agencies, including that they meet certain use-of-force training standards.

That ended up derailing a House vote on that $86.2 billion bill amid concerns from Democrats in swing districts.

Among other conditions added to the spending bill, agencies that want a share of $516.6 million in two Justice Department grant programs would be required to get rid of excessive force and chokeholds, stop the use of “no-knock” warrants in drug cases, and end contractual arrangements that prevent investigations of law enforcement misconduct.

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