House Democrats push toward policing vote, challenge Senate
After a policing overhaul collapsed in the Senate, House Democrats returned to Washington for a day heavy with emotion and symbolism to vote on their sweeping proposal to address the global outcry over the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gathered early Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the Capitol steps to challenge Congress not to allow the deaths to have been in vain or the outpouring of public support for law enforcement changes to go unmatched.
"Exactly one month ago, George Floyd spoke his final words — ‘I can’t breathe’ — and changed the course of history," Pelosi said.
She said the Senate faces a choice "to honor George Floyd’s life or to do nothing."
The House vote is set for Thursday evening on the Justice in Policing Act, perhaps the most ambitious proposed changes to police procedures and accountability in decades. Backed by the nation’s leading civil rights groups, it seeks to match the moment of street-filled demonstrations. It has almost zero chance of becoming law.
On the eve of the vote, President Donald Trump’s administration signaled he would veto the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also said it would not pass the Republican-held chamber.
After the GOP policing bill stalled Wednesday, blocked by Democrats, Trump shrugged.
"If nothing happens with it, it’s one of those things," Trump said. "We have different philosophies."
Congress is now at a familiar impasse despite polling that shows Americans overwhelmingly want changes after the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in interactions with law enforcement. The two parties are instead making the case to voters that they should decide on their priorities ahead of the fall election, a vote that will determine control of the House, Senate and White House.
Lawmakers who have been working from home during the COVID-19 crisis were summoned to the Capitol for a day that will almost certainly resonate with symbolism. Dozens will vote by proxy under new pandemic rules.
It has been a month since Floyd’s death sparked a global reckoning over police tactics and racial injustice. Since then, funeral services were held for Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot and killed by police in Atlanta. Thursday is also what would have been the 18th birthday of Tamir Rice, a Black boy killed in Ohio in 2014.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said hundreds of thousands of people "in every state in the union" are marching to make sure Floyd "will not be just another Black man dead at the hands of the police."
In the stalemate over the policing overhaul, the parties are settled into their political zones. Republicans are lined up squarely behind their effort, led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone Black GOP senator, who has personal experience of racism at the hands of police. Democrats, led by Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are standing with progressive and civil rights activists in rejecting the Republican bill as insufficient and pushing for more.
"I’m frustrated," said Scott after his bill was blocked by Democrats.
"The issue is, do we matter?" he asked, echoing the words of the Black Lives Matter movement, during an impassioned Senate speech that drew applause from his colleagues. "We said no today."
Scott said Thursday on Fox News his bill is "closer to the trash can than it’s ever been."
But Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a co-author of the Democrats’ package, brushed aside the GOP package as inadequate "crumbs" that don’t respond to a movement that stretches through U.S. history from Emmett Till to Rodney King to today.
"We are part of a movement that started a long time ago and this movement will not be deterred," Harris said. She urged colleagues to "let the beginning be today" and start new talks toward a better bill.
Both bills share common elements that could be grounds for a compromise. They would create a national database of use of force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures. The Democratic bill goes much further, mandating many of those changes, while also revising federal statute for police misconduct and holding officers personally liable for damages in lawsuits.
Democrats are trying to force Republicans to the negotiating table. The two bills, the House and Senate versions, would ultimately need to be the same to become law.
Neither bill goes as far as some activists want with calls to defund the police and shift resources to other community services.
Republicans and Democrats brought their bills forward as a starting point in the broader debate over how best to change policing practices. Scott insisted he was open to many of the broader changes proposed by Democrats.
McConnell said Thursday it was "jarring" to see Democrats "talk past" Scott. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy scolded Democrats as "playing politics."
But Democrats’ distrust of McConnell’s leadership in the Senate is deep, and most Democratic senators were unwilling to take the chance he would be a fair moderator of an amendment debate.
Instead, Senate Democrats are withholding their votes as leverage, believing once the House Democrats pass their bill, Senate Republicans, facing a groundswell of public sentiment, will have no choice but to negotiate.
With just a few months before the November election, that seems increasingly unlikely.