Senate Democrats, in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have unequivocally rejected further consideration of Republicans’ police reform bill — legislation they think falls far short of the policy changes they’d like to see.
“We will not meet this moment by holding a floor vote on the JUSTICE Act, nor can we simply amend this bill, which is so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Book write in the letter. “This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point.”
Both congressional Democrats and Republicans have introduced police reforms as hundreds of thousands of protesters around the country continue to condemn police brutality toward Black Americans, though they’ve differed noticeably in scope. While Democrats’ wide-ranging bill, the Justice in Policing Act, addresses a national use of force standard and a raft of legal protections police currently have, Republicans’ legislation focuses much more heavily on data collection and training protocols.
It’s worth noting, too, that both are much narrower than what protesters have demanded. Democrats, thus far, have shied away from backing efforts to “defund the police,” which focus on shifting funds from law enforcement toward other social services like education and food aid that could address the root causes of inequities.
McConnell had previously announced that the Senate would hold a floor vote to open debate on the Republican bill, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), this Wednesday. That would need 60 votes to move forward, meaning seven Democrats would have to join the 53 Republicans in the upper chamber and vote in favor of it for the legislation to advance.
As Politico’s Burgess Everett reported, the nature of the vote appeared to put some Democrats in a tough position: Since the vote would open debate on the measure, some lawmakers wondered whether supporting it could help kick off discussion about amendments and worried that opposing it would look obstructionist as voters across the country demanded change.
As Tuesday’s letter indicates, however, Democrats ultimately determined that the bill — which does not curb “qualified immunity” protections police have that shield them from legal accountability for misconduct, nor establish a federal ban on chokeholds — didn’t warrant floor debate.
Instead, lawmakers are urging Republicans to negotiate the text of the bill before holding any further votes on the legislation.
“The bill that is being put forth by Leader McConnell is wholly unacceptable to bringing accountability, transparency, consequences, when our common values as a country are violated,” Booker said during a floor speech on Tuesday.
Democrats are calling out key differences between the two bills
Although there is some overlap between the police reform bills recently introduced by Democrats and Republicans, there are also massive differences, which Democrats called out point by point in their letter.
Chief among these is the lack of legal accountability demanded of police in the Republican bill.
“In a moment calling for police accountability, the JUSTICE Act, your proposed answer to this crisis, does not contain any mechanisms to hold law enforcement officers accountable in court for their misconduct,” Harris, Booker, and Schumer write.
Democrats’ legislation would limit “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that makes it difficult to sue police for misconduct: In order to even go to trial with an allegation of police misconduct, an individual needs to show not only that the alleged misconduct was a violation of their civil rights, but also that there’s precedent for that same action being considered unlawful in prior cases. Republicans’ bill, meanwhile, does not restrict qualified immunity. Scott has previously dubbed the provision a “poison pill” and noted that including it would prevent Republicans from supporting the bill.
Additionally, Democrats’ bill would further empower prosecutors to scrutinize police for misconduct and grant the Justice Department subpoena power in “pattern or practice” investigations examining whether police departments have engaged in racial discrimination, two areas the Republican version fails to address.
Beyond its focus on legal accountability, Democrats’ bill would also impose federal bans on chokeholds and the use of “no knock” warrants in drug cases, while the Republican legislation would use funding to incentivize state and local police departments to ban chokeholds and study data on the use of no-knock warrants.
Areas where the bills overlap include a focus on ramping up the usage of police body cameras and a measure that would make lynching a federal crime.
Democrats’ move puts pressure on Republicans
Senate Democrats’ decision now shifts the focus on to Republicans, who’ve been determined to hold a vote on the bill on Wednesday — one that’s now widely expected to fail.
McConnell, in a floor speech on Tuesday, noted that the vote was intended to demonstrate the party’s interest in making progress on reforms. “Discussion. Debate. Votes on amendments. Tomorrow, we’ll find out whether even these modest steps are a bridge too far for our colleagues on the Democratic side,” he said.
Democrats, however, are eager to include more of their input before any bill comes to the floor. Rather than mark up the JUSTICE Act in committee, for example, Senate Republicans immediately brought it to the floor for a vote. By expressing their intentions to sink the floor vote on Wednesday, Democrats are forcing Republicans to consider possible concessions on their legislation.
Meanwhile, the House is on a parallel track: After the Judiciary Committee approved Democrats’ police reform bill along party lines last week, the entire chamber is poised to vote on its legislation this Thursday, and it will likely pass.
At that point, the Senate is able to either take up the House bill or commit to developing a compromise bill that can receive the 60 votes needed to advance in the upper chamber. Since Republicans have already dismissed Democrats’ legislation as a nonstarter, it’s likely lawmakers will need to put together another offering entirely.
“It is within our grasp,” said Harris in a floor speech on Tuesday. “People from every state, all 50 states, every walk of life, are demanding we take the problem of police brutality seriously. We have this opportunity, and we should see it as such.”
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.