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Senate Democrats will oppose GOP police reform bill, setting up stalemate in Congress

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called the GOP reform bill "deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed."
Image: Chuck Schumer and Kamala Harris speak on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters about police reform legislation at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., stands next to him.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats said Tuesday that they plan to block a vote on Republican legislation to reform policing guidelines, calling it "irrevocably flawed" and setting up a stalemate in the Senate over how to address police violence in the midst of national protests.

Democrats' move to oppose the measure undercuts plans by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a procedural vote Wednesday to move on to debating the legislation. The measure needs the support of at least 60 senators to pass, meaning seven Democrats would have to join all Republicans.

But Democrats say they don't believe President Donald Trump is willing to work toward a solution, and they are skeptical of McConnell's intentions in moving forward with the GOP bill, speculating that he is putting forward a half-baked effort.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who called the bill "deeply, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed," said McConnell's "plan appears to be designed to get the burden of dealing with policing reform off Republican shoulders by setting up a process which is guaranteed not to result in successful legislation."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, "He's setting this up for failure so he can check a political box."

Booker and Kamala Harris of California, the Senate's two Black Democrats, helped write a version of the reform bill that is being voted on in the House on Thursday. They asked McConnell in a letter Tuesday morning for "bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point."

McConnell suggested that he will move forward with the vote Wednesday regardless, telling reporters that Democrats "don't have to trust me when I say I want an open amendment process."

"I mean it, but if they don't feel like they've had fair treatment, their remedy is to refuse to finish the bill," he said.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that she would support negotiating with the Senate after both chambers vote on a bill in a conference committee. When asked why he doesn't support that process, Schumer said: "If you want to get to conference, you need a bipartisan process to start, or you will never get to conference. That's the flaw of McConnell's proposal."

The Republican and Democratic bills are dramatically different. Unlike the Democratic version, the Republican bill doesn't call for an outright ban on chokeholds or touch on the defense of qualified immunity, and it would collect data on entries using "no-knock" warrants instead of banning them. The Democratic bill would ban no-knock warrants.

"I think there's going to be a price to be paid for it," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is running for re-election this year. "I'm for holding them accountable. I'm not for helping them out of the ditch that they've gotten themselves in."

Democrats were bolstered by the support of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, which urged them not to advance legislation that they call inadequate.

The civil rights groups said in a letter that the Republican bill "fails to respond to decades-long demands for police accountability and reforms."

"In this moment, we cannot support legislation that does not embody a strong accountability framework for police officers and other law enforcement who engage in misconduct as well as needed reforms to policing practices," the letter continued.

As both sides hardened in their positions Tuesday, a bipartisan group of six senators who have been instrumental in crafting each party's legislation — Republicans Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrats Booker, Harris and Dick Durbin of Illinois — met behind closed doors.

Booker said that it was just a conversation and that talks haven't formalized into a bipartisan working group.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., introduced legislation that would scale back the qualified immunity defense for police officers, a reform most Republicans don't support.

Braun said in an interview that Republicans are "a little timid in what we want to do" about police reform. "If we want to do something that's going to change the dynamic, I think you've got to have some discussion of qualified immunity," he said.