Beyond Reform

The Senate stalls out before doing anything about police abuse.

McConnell speaks at a mic with Tim Scott standing nearby
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with Sen. Tim Scott at a press briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two weeks. That’s how brief the window for guarded optimism about bipartisan police reform from the United States Congress, following nationwide protests over police abuse, lasted. On Tuesday morning, differences of opinion about the breadth of necessary reform spilled over, in an instant, into breathless accusations of bad faith and a legislative standstill. A Senate vote is scheduled for Wednesday about whether to open debate and amendment on the Republicans’ bill, the Justice Act, authored by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. That vote is expected to fail.

Democrats have been critical of Scott’s bill since it was introduced last week. It doesn’t touch qualified immunity for police officers, it doesn’t ban no-knock warrants, it doesn’t limit the militarization of the police, and it doesn’t make it easier to prosecute officers for crimes. It too often, for Democrats’ liking, defaults to further study rather than immediate reform.

But Democrats had not said whether they would block the bill from consideration or allow the debate to proceed and take their chances on improving it with amendments.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, on Tuesday morning, signaled that Democrats would block the bill from consideration, declaring it unsalvageable.

“It is clear that the Republican bill, as is, will not get 60 votes. There is overwhelming opposition to the bill in our caucus,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “And because the bill needs such large-scale and fundamental change, there is no conceivable way that a series of amendments strong enough to cure the defects in the bill could garner 60 votes either. So no bill—no bill—will pass as a result of this ploy by Sen. McConnell.” He cited, for good measure, calls from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to declare the Justice Act a “non-starter.”

To Republicans, this was just a convoluted excuse for choosing to kill legislation to preserve the political issue heading into an election.

“I hope none of you are falling for this nonsense that somehow our Democratic colleagues would be disadvantaged” by voting to open debate on the Scott bill, an irritated McConnell told reporters. “I read that several of them said that they don’t ‘trust Mitch McConnell.’ They don’t have to trust me.” He explained that Democrats could vote to open debate, and if they were unsuccessful in securing the changes they wanted through amendments, they could refuse to advance the bill at the next 60-vote threshold vote, to end debate.

“There’s literally no harm done by debating this important topic,” McConnell said.

McConnell has been saying repeatedly for the last week that he was trying to pass a law, not a messaging bill, and challenged Democrats to show the same. Democrats believe, however, that the process McConnell chose from the outset belies his assertion about wanting to make a law.

When McConnell does want to make a law, he allows for bipartisan input before debate begins. Annual “must-pass” items, like spending bills or the National Defense Authorization Act, are negotiated on a bipartisan basis through committees. The CARES Act, which attained de facto “must-pass” status once the economy ground to a halt, was negotiated among bipartisan working groups of Democrats and Republicans.

The Justice Act, however, was written by Scott and fellow Republicans exclusively and will be brought straight to the floor, bypassing the committee process. If McConnell were serious about planning to pass a bill, Democrats argue, he would have gotten bipartisan buy-in from the outset to create a base measure that both Republicans and Democrats could live with and then amend on the margins. Instead, McConnell—“intentionally,” as Cory Booker said—put forward a bill with too many problems for Democrats.

“It is designed to fail so that they could have a political talking point—and this is the richest part of it all—where they are going to blame Democrats for not wanting real reform,” Booker described it.

Democrats are trying to put the ball in McConnell’s court, by saying it’s still not too late to make a law if that’s really what he’s interested in. He could move the issue to the Judiciary Committee or convene some bipartisan working group to reach a deal. If, instead, Democrats agreed to simply open debate to see what happened—a process that McConnell said would bring them “no harm”—they would be precluding a more promising process, starting with a more advanced, bipartisan base text, from coming down the line.

McConnell said Tuesday that a failed procedural vote on Wednesday would not necessarily mark the end of the police reform debate, and he would reserve the option to bring it up again later. That will be the real test of whether police reform has the “must-pass” designation that anything significant needs to become law a few months before a presidential election. If McConnell does want to make a law, the failure of a procedural vote will be just a temporary setback that prompts Senate Republicans and Democrats to get together and hammer something out. That’s what happened after Democrats filibustered a procedural vote over an early version of the CARES Act: They worked through it. If a failed vote on Wednesday is the end of the process, the “police reform debate” was never more than an act of showy commotion responding to a major news cycle, destined to end in blame-passing.