WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a Republican-drafted bill aimed at overhauling the nation's policing practices amid a national outcry for a systematic transformation of law enforcement - spelling a potential death knell to efforts at revisions at the federal level in an election year.
In a 55-to-45 vote, the legislation written primarily by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., failed to advance in the Senate, where it needed 60 votes to proceed. Most Democratic senators said the bill fell far short of what was needed to meaningfully change policing tactics and was beyond the point of salvageable.
"The Republican majority proposed the legislative equivalent of a fig leaf - something that provides a little cover but no real change," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Wednesday morning. "The harsh fact of the matter is, the bill is so deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, it cannot serve as a useful starting point for meaningful reform."
Democrats are pushing a more expansive policing bill that the Democratic-led House will vote on Thursday, a measure that would mandate several changes, including a federal ban on chokeholds, prohibitions on no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and establishment of a national database to track police misconduct.
Its prospects are dim as Republicans say it has no chance in the Senate and the Trump administration issued a formal veto threat on Wednesday.
"The Senate Republicans want very much to pass a bill on police reform .. we have total cooperation with many different communities, including the police community. They want it very much to happen," President Donald Trump said at a news conference later Wednesday at the White House. "The Democrats don't want to do it because they want to weaken our police, they want to take away immunity, they want to do other things."
The failed Senate vote came after an impassioned speech by Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, who said his bill was an opportunity to say, "Not only do we hear you, not only do we see you, we are responding to your pain."
The gridlock on Capitol Hill stands in contrast with the growing public support for police reform measures in the four weeks since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed in police custody, galvanized the nation and prompted demands for racial justice. A national Associated Press-NORC survey conducted this month found a sweeping desire nationwide for police reform, with clear majorities across racial and party lines supporting changes such as requiring officers to wear body cameras and prosecuting those who use excessive force.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, one of three members of the Democratic caucus to join Republicans in voting to advance the bill, bemoaned the outcome.
"My concern was that voting against it will end the discussion of this subject in the Senate for the foreseeable future, and leave us with nothing to show for all the energy and passion that has brought this issue to the forefront of public consciousness," King said in a statement.
Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Doug Jones, D-Ala., who is up for reelection in a strongly Republican state, also voted with the GOP to consider the bill.
Democrats argued that had Republicans wanted to produce a substantive, bipartisan police proposal, they would have started with a template that included more input from them before letting the bill advance on the floor. In private, Democrats also spoke of their deep distrust of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and questioned whether he wanted a bipartisan bill to pass the Senate.
Republicans repeatedly noted that Democrats could try to amend the bill on the Senate floor, and GOP senators privately offered amendment votes meant to address several criticisms of the bill that Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., laid out in a letter to McConnell on Tuesday. The Democrats turned down that offer, according to two GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss procedural deliberations, and also rejected a subsequent offer of more amendment votes.
Scott privately told Democrats that if they did not get votes on amendments they sought, that he, too, would help them filibuster his own bill before it proceeded to a final vote, according to one of the officials. One Senate Democratic aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the moves from Republicans, saying no serious offer nor efforts at bipartisan talks had been made by GOP senators.
"We're literally arguing about whether to stop arguing about whether to start arguing about something else," McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. "Nobody thought the first offer from the Republican side was going to be the final product that traveled out of the Senate."
The Senate GOP plan incorporates a number of Democratic proposals, such as legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and a national policing commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the U.S. criminal justice system.
It also withholds federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies that do not proactively bar the practice of chokeholds. It also calls on states and localities to report to the Justice Department when "no-knock warrants" are used, and it would punish those that do not do so, by withholding federal funding.
On one major point of dissension between the parties, the Republican bill leaves intact the "qualified immunity" standard that Democrats want to erode, making it easier for law enforcement officials to be sued for misconduct.
In its veto threat, the Trump administration called the Democratic legislation an "overbroad bill" that "would deter good people from pursuing careers in law enforcement, weaken the ability of law enforcement agencies to reduce crime and keep our communities safe, and fail to bring law enforcement and the communities they serve closer together."
Despite the vote, McConnell left open the possibility of taking procedural steps to tee it up again in the future. Republicans later noted that Democrats can exert significant influence on the progress of the bill, because it would require 60 votes not just to start work on the legislation but also, separately, to move it to a final passage vote.
This article was written by Seung Min Kim, a reporter for The Washington Post.