We saw how seriously congressional Democrats were taking police reform when Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democratic leader, dismissed legislation introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) as a “token, half-hearted approach.” For Durbin to question the seriousness and sincerity of Scott — a black man who has personally experienced police discrimination — was disgraceful. Scott said of Durbin’s comment, “to call this a token process hurts my soul.” (Durbin later apologized to Scott.)
Not to be outdone, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described Scott’s bill as “trying to get away with murder, actually. The murder of George Floyd.” When asked if she would apologize, Pelosi said, “Absolutely, positively not” — though she claimed she had been referring not to Scott but to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Sure, she was.
What Democrats should be apologizing for was their shameful vote on the Senate floor Wednesday to kill Scott’s legislation — and with it any chance of passing police reform this year. Democrats knew exactly what they were doing. As Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), one of three members of the Democratic caucus who voted to advance the Scott bill, explained, “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.”
He’s right. If Democrats cared about getting something done, they would have allowed the Senate to move forward and sought to amend Scott’s bill on the floor. There was plenty of basis for compromise. Scott’s legislation had already incorporated a number of Democratic proposals, including: making lynching a federal hate crime, creating a national policing commission to conduct a review of the U.S. criminal justice system; collecting data on use of force by police; barring the use of chokeholds by federal officers and withholding federal funds to state and local law enforcement agencies that do not similarly bar them; and withholding federal money to police departments that fail to report to the Justice Department when no-knock warrants are used.
Indeed, Republicans offered to allow votes on as many amendments as Democrats wanted — something Pelosi has refused to allow House Republicans to do to the House police reform bill. Scott promised Democrats he would filibuster his own bill if they did not get votes they sought. As Scott explained in an impassioned floor speech, he even told Democrats he would vote to support some of their amendments, such as expanding the definition of chokeholds and collecting data not just on serious bodily injury and death but on all uses of force by police. “We’ll stay on this floor for as long as it takes and as many amendments as it takes,” he said. With Scott’s backing, some of those amendments would have gotten enough Republican support to pass — giving Democrats the real prospect of making significant changes to the bill.
Even if Democrats didn’t fully embrace the compromise bill the Senate eventually passed, they would have another chance to improve it in negotiations with the House. As anyone who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock knows, the way a bill becomes a law is for the House and Senate to both pass their own versions of a bill and then negotiate a compromise they can put on the president’s desk. If, after all that effort, they still did not like the results of the House-Senate conference, then Democrats (who control the House) could still have refused to bring a final bill to the floor. But at least they could have claimed they made a real effort to reach bipartisan consensus.
But Democrats’ failure to even try this shows they were not interested in compromise. Scott says his Democratic colleagues told him “we’re not here to talk about that” and “walked out.” They voted not to even allow debate on his bill, which they knew meant police reform would not happen this year. That, Scott said, was a tragedy. “We lost — I lost — a vote on a piece of legislation that would have led to systemic change in the relationship between the communities of color and the law enforcement community.”
At a time when much of our country seems to be descending into chaos — with violence in the streets, autonomous zones being declared and mobs pulling down statues — Americans want their elected leaders to behave like adults, work together and get something done. Republicans put forward a good-faith effort to do just that. But Democrats apparently care more about using the issue to energize their base on Election Day than working with Republicans to enact police reform.