Senate Democrats are strongly signaling they will filibuster Republicans’ police reform bill later this week absent more concessions from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The Kentucky Republican set the Senate on a path to consider the legislation on Wednesday and must lure at least seven Democrats to support even opening debate on a GOP bill written without any Democratic input. So far, few Democrats have expressed any interest.
“If nothing changes, I’m voting no. I need some assurances that we’re going to vote on amendments that will fix this bill. And it needs a lot of fixing,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a centrist whom Republicans would conceivably need to cobble together the requisite 60 votes.
Both parties raced to put together legislation in response to George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and the nationwide protests that followed. But they do not seem to be in a mood to compromise in the middle of a pandemic and with an election in a little more than four months.
Democrats oppose the legislation written by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) as inadequate, saying it lacks the strong federal orders needed to spur police departments to change their actions on racial profiling and use of force. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the GOP bill “deeply and fundamentally flawed” on Monday.
But Democrats also say they can’t support advancing the bill without promises from McConnell that they will get votes on amendments to impose more police oversight. So, while Schumer and McConnell could still work out an agreement on amendment votes that paves the way for arguments on the floor, it’s also possible the police reform debate crashes and burns in the Senate before it even gets off the ground.
“There’s no clarity in what we’re being offered by Sen. McConnell,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “I’ve faced similar Sen. McConnell offers in the past, on [coronavirus legislation], and the best thing that happened is we didn’t accept his offer. We demanded a bipartisan approach.”
So far, there have been few substantive bipartisan negotiations on a compromise bill. McConnell said Monday, “For anyone who actually wants to legislate, it shouldn’t be a difficult call” to advance the bill.
Filibustering the legislation isn’t without risks for Democrats. Schumer and his party had urged McConnell to hold a police reform debate in the wake of Floyd’s killing, and they could invite criticism for not trying to improve the GOP bill and instead voting it down.
“I hope that whatever strange political calculations are making this difficult for our friends across the aisle will yield to common sense and to the American people’s hunger for progress,” McConnell said.
Democrats also face little pressure from outside groups to vote to advance the legislation. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter Monday to McConnell and Schumer, urging a “no” vote and citing concerns that the GOP bill does not go nearly far enough in holding police officers accountable.
The Senate Democratic Caucus held a lengthy conference call on Monday debating the best path forward. Many Democrats said afterward they would vote against advancing the bill, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is on Schumer’s leadership team, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
“I’m not going to vote on a half-ass bill,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
Republicans have offered vague assurances that they would allow amendments to their legislation, which stops short of a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants and instead creates incentives for police departments to curtail the use of force. In theory, Democrats could vote to advance the bill and then offer their more sweeping legislation as an amendment.
But Democratic leaders were skeptical on Monday that they’d even get that chance. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, one of Schumer’s deputies, said she will vote no and said McConnell should “put together a bipartisan group to work out something that’s meaningful.”
“When he doesn’t want to do anything, he does this kind of thing,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said of McConnell’s strategy. He called McConnell’s proposal little more than a “talking point.”
Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama is likely to support advancing the bill and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia could as well. Fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has not said how she will vote.
In the House, Democrats are set to pass their own legislation with little to no GOP support later this week. The House Democrats’ bill bans no-knock raids and chokeholds and makes it easier to take legal action against police misconduct.
Republicans oppose the Democratic bill, particularly provisions that change “qualified immunity” provisions to allow police officers to be sued. President Donald Trump on Twitter urged Republicans to unite against the House Democrats’ plan, alleging it will “destroy our police.”
If the Senate can’t agree even to begin debating Scott’s bill, it will amount to a brutal blow for Congress’ hopes at passing police reform during a moment of national reckoning on race. The chamber is scheduled for a two-week recess in July and then will focus mostly on drafting a new coronavirus relief package.
Some Senate Republicans said Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s calls for a bicameral conference committee could bring Senate Democrats to the table. But the GOP seemed to be bracing for Democrats to vote against their proposal.
“Unfortunately, it would be business as usual these days,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).