Senate Democrats have officially rejected Republicans’ police reform bill, tanking the legislation, which needed 60 votes to advance, in a 55-45 vote on Wednesday. In a letter earlier this week, Democrats noted that the bill — which does little to ensure legal accountability in cases of police misconduct — fell far short of the policies they’re interested in implementing.
“This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker said in the letter. For now, the two parties have yet to make inroads on a compromise: The House is set to pass Democrats’ police reform bill on Thursday, but Republicans in the Senate have already dismissed it.
Both congressional Democrats and Republicans recently introduced police reforms as hundreds of thousands of protesters across 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’ Justice Act focuses more on data collection and training protocols. Both would incentivize state and local police departments to ban chokeholds, though Democrats’ legislation includes a federal ban as well.
Neither bill fully addresses protesters’ demands. 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.
Republicans would have needed seven Democrats to join their 53-member majority for their legislation, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), to advance. Ultimately, however, they were only able to pick up support from three members of the caucus: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Doug Jones (D-AL), and Angus King (I-ME) crossed party lines to vote in favor of it.
Lawmakers in the upper chamber will likely have to find a compromise that could attain more bipartisan support before attempting another vote. McConnell has made clear that this week’s vote isn’t necessarily the last action that could be taken on this bill.
Democrats are interested in more expansive reforms
Democrats sunk Republicans’ bill mainly because they didn’t think its reforms were expansive enough.
Chief among the problems they cited 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 wrote in their Tuesday letter.
Democrats’ legislation would limit “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that makes it difficult to sue police for misconduct: 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 only use funding to incentivize state and local police departments to ban chokeholds and study data on the use of no-knock warrants.
The bills do overlap, including in ramping up the use of police body cameras and a measure that would make lynching a federal crime.
Democrats’ move puts pressure on Republicans
Senate Democrats’ decision to block the bill now shifts the focus on to Republicans, who face pressure to consider more concessions.
Democrats, at this point, are eager to include their input before the bill comes to the floor for another vote. Rather than mark up the JUSTICE Act in committee, Senate Republicans immediately brought it to the floor.
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 deemed 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.”
The impasse over provisions including “qualified immunity,” could wind up being a sticking point, however. “The qualified immunity line is not one we’re going to cross,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has previously told Politico.
Moving forward, lawmakers will have to determine whether or not they can resolve these differences — or if the passage of these reforms will wind up stalling amid such disagreements.
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.