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Bipartisan support for federal probe into Eric Garner killing?

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There has been a lot of chatter about the remarkable degree of condemnation across ideological lines of the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in a forbidden choke-hold.

In that context, it will be particularly interesting to see how Republican lawmakers react to the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the killing.

Some Senate Republicans are now saying that the investigation will become the subject of a line of questioning for Obama’s nominee to be the next Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, who is overseeing the probe. Senator John Cornyn, who is on the Judiciary Committee that will hear Lynch’s confirmation hearing, made a noteworthy statement to that effect:

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday that the Garner case would no doubt be raised, as would questions about Ms. Lynch’s view of the federal government’s asserting itself in recent cases in which white law enforcement officers have not faced state charges after being involved in the deaths of black Americans.
“Why does the federal government feel like it is its responsibility and role to be the leader in an investigation in a local instance?” asked Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who said all state and local options should first be exhausted. “I want to know what her priorities are.”

That sounds like Cornyn may oppose the probe, on the grounds that this should first be left to “state and local options.” The New York Police Department is conducting an internal investigation, and it’s unclear why such local probes should supplant a federal one (if indeed that is what Cornyn believes). The investigation will seek to determine whether Garner’s civil rights were violated, so when Cornyn says he will ask what the investigation’s “priorities” are, it’s unclear what this line of questioning would entail.

At the same time, though, another Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions, appears to support the Justice Department’s authority to conduct the probe, and may not make it an issue at a confirmation hearing:

“The Department of Justice needs to be careful not to politicize events but at the same time the Department of Justice has the authority to independently investigate these cases,” Sessions said in an interview. “I suppose her recommendation as U.S. attorney there would be a key recommendation in what’s decided.”
Sessions added: “I doubt I’ll be asking about that.”

The incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee is Chuck Grassley. His office didn’t return an email for comment about Cornyn’s suggestion.

Tracking the Republican response to this probe will help shed light on whether there are genuine prospects for bipartisan cooperation on the larger issues that have been raised by the Garner and other killings. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, hopes rose for bipartisan action against the problem of police over-militarization, an area where there is already some agreement between the civil liberties left and the libertarian right, and beyond that, drug law sentencing and criminal justice reform, another area of left-right overlap.

One Democrat points out that Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn — all of whom will play a big role in Lynch’s confirmation hearings — were out front in opposition to bipartisan reforms that would have reduced the sentences of many low level drug offenders, arguing they were soft on crime. That perhaps doesn’t bode well for the Garner killing to help spur bipartisan agreement on broader reforms, particularly among the Senate GOP old guard.

On this score, Senator Rand Paul could play an interesting role. After the Ferguson shooting, he came out with a remarkable statement in support of action against police militarization, and even acknowledged that it is understandable that African Americans see racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But Paul’s response also demonstrated lingering disagreements among civil liberties progressives and libertarian conservatives over how deeply the inequities of our criminal justice system are rooted in longstanding racial inequality.

And when Democrats, in a bit of clever trolling, invited Paul to join them in supporting a federal probe into the broader civil rights and racial profiling ramifications of the shooting, he did not, to my knowledge, respond.

A Paul spokesman confirms to me that he has not yet taken a position on the Justice Department’s probe into the Garner killing.

All of this will be particularly interesting to track once the Lynch confirmation hearings — and the federal investigation of the Staten Island killing — get under way. They could once again test the limits of the left-right alliance in tackling some of the broader issues that these killings have pushed to the fore.

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