WASHINGTON — The day after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Republican Sen. Tim Scott expressed renewed optimism about the prospects of Congress passing a police reform bill.
“I'm confident that the issues that I've been discussing as it relates to making progress on police reform are today — they have more traction than they had last year,” Scott, of South Carolina, said Wednesday speaking to reporters in the Capitol.
Sweeping police reform has been viewed as a policy area ripe for bipartisan cooperation since Scott joined the effort in 2015. Democrats have been clamoring for a federal overhaul since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Republican Party’s libertarian wing has fueled its willingness to support limits on police.
But like most things in Congress, partisan division has stalled prior efforts, and Republicans were chafed that Senate Democrats blocked their last attempt to consider a reform bill.
The bill now being considered, named the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed the House in March but stalled in the Senate because it lacks the support of at least 10 Republicans to clear the needed 60-vote threshold.
Negotiations have been ongoing between Scott, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who sponsored the House bill, but the group has not reached a compromise or made significant progress.
But Scott said he sees a way to break the impasse.
“I think we are on the verge of wrapping this up in the next week or two depending on how quickly they respond to our suggestions,” Scott told reporters.
Democrats are warning that the verdict can’t be a substitute for legislative action.
“We should not mistake the guilty verdict in this case as evidence that the persistent problem of police misconduct has been solved or that the divide between law enforcement and so many of the communities they serve has been bridged. It has not,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“I don't know that anyone will see the George Floyd verdict as a transformative moment in our justice system. I think we should see it as a serious step in the right direction,” he said.
The House-passed bill bans chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants. It also creates a database of police officers who have acted inappropriately in the line of duty. No Republicans in the House supported the bill.
“We must do our job in this chamber and make sure that we reform policing, which will make life better not only for citizens but for the police,” Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said.
Democrats have their own internal politics to navigate, including the risk that any compromise will be seen as too watered down by their base.
“I don’t think there is a path forward,” said Kat Calvin, a lawyer and progressive activist who founded the group Spread the Vote. She fretted that the Democratic Party “within itself can’t agree on what it wants” and said Republicans oppose policies “significant enough that it will make police stop killing people.”
She said Scott’s opposition to ending a legal protection known as “qualified immunity” for police officers means any compromise he reaches will be insufficient.
“Having Tim Scott lead these negotiations is not helpful,” she said. “Those of us who are dying — I’m Black in America. Everyone in my family is concerned about this issue.”
Scott, the only Black member of the Senate GOP, became the Republican leader on a police reform bill after the 2015 shooting in North Charleston, South Carolina, of Walter Scott, a Black man, by former police officer Michael Slager, who pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge. A police reform bill authored by Scott in 2020 was blocked by Democrats.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., thinks Scott will be able to rally broad support among Republican senators for the deal he negotiates.
“He's heavy into negotiations,” she said Wednesday. “He would get broad-based support from the conference.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called police reform legislation “a huge priority.” He is a potential Republican to join Democrats on a compromise.
“The judicial system worked. But a man is dead. So that’s a very high price to pay,” Romney said. “I think the need to, to pass Tim Scott's proposal with regards to police reform is as great as ever.”
Big policy disagreements remain between the two parties.
One major sticking point is qualified immunity, which protects officers from most civil lawsuits. Democrats want to allow on-duty officers to be sued as a form of accountability. Republicans, who generally support tort reform that makes civil litigation harder, say eliminating qualified immunity would make it impossible for police departments to recruit officers willing to take the financial risk.
Scott said he proposed to Democrats allowing police departments, not individual officers, to be sued.
Another sticking point is the prohibition of chokeholds. Scott’s previous legislation would just study the tactic instead of banning it.
Democrats also want to prohibit police from receiving decommissioned military gear, which Republicans oppose, arguing the items are not all lethal and sometimes necessary for disaster response.
Scott’s legislation received a vote last year when the Senate was controlled by Republicans, but it was blocked by Democrats, who voted on party lines to prevent the bill from receiving the needed 60 votes. Now, Democrats control Congress and the White House but lack the 60 votes needed to pass legislation without Republicans.
Schumer said passage is a priority.
“The Senate will continue that work as we strive to ensure that George Floyd's tragic death will not be in vain,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “We will not rest until the Senate passes strong legislation to end the systemic bias in law enforcement.”