The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats delay votes on police, guns after internal infighting

A push to increase police funding has infuriated liberals who would rather see such money redirected to community policing and police reform measures

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outside a meeting with California lawmakers on Capitol Hill on July 27. (Tristen Rouse/The Washington Post)

House Democrats postponed the consideration of a package of bills that would address public safety and ban assault weapons, exposing the fracture lines that exist within the caucus and sinking the desire by many members to leave Washington with fresh legislative wins to motivate voter turnout as they hit the campaign trail.

Vulnerable members in swing districts, known as front-liners, who remain most at risk of losing their seats during the midterm elections have spent the past several weeks pushing leaders to vote on legislation that would help fund local law enforcement to counter GOP attacks that Democrats are soft on crime — an argument that probably cost the party seats in 2020 and created animosity between different factions of the party.

But the push to increase police funding has infuriated liberals who would rather see such money redirected to community policing, as well as Black lawmakers and civil rights groups who want accountability and transparency measures attached to police funding.

The recent string of mass shootings across the country — particularly after 19 children and two teachers were killed at a Uvalde, Tex., elementary school — motivated many Democrats to reignite a push to vote on an assault weapons ban for the first time in decades.

But there was uncertainty that an assault weapons ban has the votes in a chamber where Democrats have only a razor-thin four-member majority . Leaders had hoped to tack the ban onto the tranche of public safety bills, which included police funding as well as community policing measures and mental health response teams, to ensure it could pass this month. Members now hope to reconsider the package by mid-August, when they return from a break.

The episode is just the most recent headache for Democratic leaders as they try to appease different factions within their caucus who represent disparate groups of voters. It has remained a repeated struggle that has at times defined the caucus this term as members work to overcome differences at the last minute in an effort to salvage legislative priorities.

“This is the nature of the business. I mean, you know, the important thing is to get things done,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “We’re Democrats. We’d like to talk and, you know, go back and forth and continue to talk. That’s who we are.”

Votes were never scheduled for this week, but the friction caused the House Rules Committee, which McGovern chairs, to pull back considering the legislation — the final step before bills can be officially scheduled for a floor vote.

At issue is a bipartisan bill led by Reps. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) that would double the existing amount of federal grant money to more than a billion dollars for an office within the Justice Department that allots the money to local police departments so they can have the resources to adequately train officers and hire community policing professionals.

During a late Tuesday meeting, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s executive board discussed the wide opposition among its membership to any legislation that sends additional money to police departments. Members of the liberal wing have previously voted against bills that had funded law enforcement, a threat that remained ahead of any possible votes this week.

Their threat to sink the public safety package would hurt their chances to pass the assault weapons ban, which they support.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus also met Tuesday evening to discuss their support, expressing to leadership that any package including funds for police must have legislative language that holds law enforcement to account for cases of police brutality. There was concern that the package also skipped the committee process, giving some members the impression that it was rushed without much consideration over how it would be digested by Black lawmakers.

Liberals and some Black lawmakers and their voters have been highly critical of additional funding for law enforcement without new policies governing policing practices following the killings in recent years of Black Americans in high-profile cases involving allegations of and convictions for excessive force.

A proposal to overhaul policing tactics that passed the House last year died in the Senate, which was a major disappointment to Democrats who wanted police reform to be a key achievement this Congress.

A person familiar with the Congressional Black Caucus’s thinking said its members are playing an active role to find a compromise, given that their caucus wants to help their front-line and liberal members.

“We just need a little bit more time to work all that out. We’re going to get there,” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), who is leading a bill that would invest in initiatives meant to reduce community-based violence.

Members of House leadership, CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Spanberger met Wednesday morning in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to try to find a compromise in hopes of scheduling a floor vote for this week. Instead, the meeting resulted in continuing to smooth out differences over the legislative break.

“This conversation is about responding to the public safety concerns of the American people — and it will and must continue,” Spanberger said in a statement.

“These are things I think are very important,” Gottheimer said. “I’m really optimistic that we’re making good process.”

But the delay has irritated front-liners who were hoping to immediately start campaigning on funding police departments even if some of the measures might not pass an evenly split Senate.

“I’m disappointed,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) said. “I wish they would have happened.”

A majority of Democrats agree on several other bills that make up the legislative package, including dissolving a civil liability law protecting gunmakers.

But leadership’s decision to pull the public safety bills until there is a compromise has made it difficult to vote on just the assault weapons ban, since it relies on all but four Democrats to support it.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who recently lost his primary bid to a liberal Democrat, has publicly said he would vote against the ban. Other front-line members representing rural districts also expressed hesitancy in backing it.

“I have no comment right now until I find out a little bit more. A lot more,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), who is considered one of the most endangered Democrats this cycle. “Some of it is very surprising.”

Majority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that it’s likely the House will come back into session in the second week of August to pass a Senate-approved climate, health and tax package and that it will probably consider the public safety bills then. The Democratic margin could shrink to three votes by then if Republicans fill a special election seat in Minnesota.

“If it was complete and we thought it could pass, I’d put it on the floor tomorrow or Friday,” Hoyer said. “But in any event, it’s a high priority for us.”

While many Democrats say it’s still likely the package will eventually pass the House, some members said heartburn could have been avoided if they had taken a breath rather than forced bills ahead of a summer dash.

“I think if we would do the proper vetting process, which, you know, we haven’t been doing as well as we should, all those things get resolved at the right time and don’t all come to a peak. But again, I’m not surprised by anything this week,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.