WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Democrats blocked a controversial Republican police reform bill from being debated Wednesday, asserting it lacked the meaningful measures to stamp out police brutality disproportionately leveled at black Americans.
Lawmakers voted 55-45 to close off debate on the Justice Act, with just two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, voting with Republicans. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine also voted with Republicans Wednesday.
It was a procedural affair in the Senate, with opposition running hot against the police reform bill introduced by the sole black Republican member of the Senate, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.
But the legislation’s provisions like incentives for police departments to limit but not outright ban chokeholds, its silence on long-sought changes to qualified immunity – the legal doctrine shielding law enforcement from liability claims – and its exclusion of extensive racial bias training were so heartily rejected by Democrats that they were able to deny Republicans the chance for debate and consideration of amendments.
“This is political nonsense elevated to an art form,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday in stringent remarks aimed at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who has blasted the Justice Act as a “sham” for failing to address the issues of systemic racism in policing.
Wednesday’s battle of wills was centered around a process known as a motion to cloture, where a 60-person majority must be reached to bring a bill up for debate. But since Democrats held their line, now only a few options remain for the Justice Act.
It can be left in the dustbin as other legislation is brought forward or the motion for debate can be brought back up again later. McConnell allowed for the latter option by using a bit of fancy parliamentary footwork by changing his vote in favor of the motion to voting against it.
“It is nonsense to say a police reform bill cannot be the starting point for a police reform bill. It is nonsense for Democrats to say that because they want to change Senator Scott’s bill, they’re going to block the Senate from taking it up and amending it,” McConnell said. “If they’re confident in their positions, they should embrace the amendment process.”
But the sticking point for Democrats is that the Justice Act is just not worth amending, Schumer said before calling the bill “the equivalent of a fig leaf” and “something that provides little cover but offers no real change.”
Instead, Senate Democrats are banking on a bill waiting in the wings of the House and expected to pass there when it comes up for a vote Thursday. That bill is known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and is “like night and day,” Schumer said, when compared to the GOP’s offering.
The Floyd Act bans chokeholds altogether and prohibits the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases, unlike the Justice Act. It also ends qualified immunity for police officers and requires body cameras.
Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. And it was a no-knock warrant that ended in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old black woman in Kentucky who was asleep in her bed when police burst in and shot her eight times.
“In response to the brutal killing of George Floyd, his windpipe crushed by an officer, my Republican colleagues did not even ban the tactics that led to his death,” Schumer remarked. “What weak tea! For Leader McConnell to come on the floor with this bill and say he is solving the problem – no one believes that except for maybe a few ideologues who don’t want to solve the problem to begin with.”
The stark criticism didn’t just come from Schumer and Democratic lawmakers. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is comprised of 220 civil rights organizations, was joined by another 138 civil rights groups, including the NAACP, in opposing the Justice Act in a letter Tuesday.
“This bill does nothing to address current barriers to holding law enforcement accountable such as abolishing qualified immunity or criminalizing the reckless use of force. It does not address, let alone prohibit the perverse yet pervasive practice of racial profiling,” the letter states. “It fails to address the militarization of police or the need for a national standard restricting the use of force and lacks the national, robust and publicly available misconduct registry required for true transparency.”
When given a chance to respond to McConnell’s assertion Wednesday that Democrats “didn’t want an outcome” and were more interested in obstruction that progress, Schumer pointed to widespread support for the Floyd Act.
“Don’t get on your sanctimonious horse, Leader McConnell. You have none of the civil rights groups behind you,” Schumer said before adding that the organizations’ rejection of the Republican bill “ripped off any cloaking about what the bill does and what it is.”
Senator Scott, sponsor of the Justice Act, unsuccessfully beseeched fellow lawmakers to meet in the middle and vote in favor of debate just ahead of the vote.
“We come here today with an opportunity to say to America, to communities of color, we see you. We hear you,” he said.
In an op-ed for USA Today last week, Scott revealed that he had been stopped by police seven times as an elected official and 18 times total in the last two decades.
“I understand some part of what too many have experienced,” he said Wednesday, lamenting that amendments could have been heard on any issue raised by Democrats had they agreed to debate.