“There is still more work to be done on the final bill, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” they said.
Senators left Washington for a two-week recess after the lead Republican negotiator, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), declared “June or bust” in assessing the talks last month. That new deadline came after the talks blew past a previous one set by President Biden — the May 25 anniversary of the death of George Floyd, whose murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year touched off nationwide protests and sparked a new push for federal policing standards.
Further progress could be a tall order despite the positive tone negotiators sought to strike on Thursday. The talks are now set to continue into the recess, and they could be easily sidelined by a planned July legislative sprint, where the Senate is expected to try to advance President Biden’s double-barreled economic agenda, which includes infrastructure and social policy legislation moving in parallel.
Beyond that looms the 2022 midterm election, and the potential for lawmakers to see more utility in having crime and policing as a live campaign issue than a legislative solution.
Before the statement was issued Thursday, Scott said that further progress would be “tough” but said there was enough progress to justify further negotiations.
“We are still hacking away at it,” he said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the lead Democrat in the talks, on Wednesday called himself a “prisoner of hope” but said no breakthrough was at hand.
Congressional aides in both parties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the state of the talks, described rising frustrations about persistent divides on how far Congress should go in creating new ways to hold police officers and the departments that employ them accountable for misconduct, including through lawsuits.
Democratic aides said that Republicans had backed away from positions they had previously signaled they’d be willing to accept in private meetings, while Republicans said Democrats were not doing enough to accommodate the sensitive politics around crime and policing. All said a deal was still possible, but progress was bogging down.
The House passed a police accountability bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, in February on a largely party-line vote. That legislation takes a broad and aggressive approach by prohibiting racial profiling by police, banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and making it easier for the Justice Department to criminally charge officers for civil rights violations. It also allows victims of misconduct to sue officers, overriding a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.
A competing Republican proposal drafted by Scott — which funded police training, improved misconduct reporting and encouraged the use of body cameras — was blocked in the Senate last year by Democrats, who opposed the narrower bill’s approach to reform.
A renewed round of talks kicked off in March, led by Booker and Scott, as well as Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who authored the House-passed bill. Both parties hoped the mutual engagement of civil rights organizations, police groups, and key lawmakers could steer the talks though the political thicket that emerged after Floyd’s death.
The talks have centered on a handful of thorny issues — including the use of chokeholds and certain other police techniques, the issuance of no-knock search and arrest warrants, and the transfers of military equipment to law enforcement agencies.
Those conflicts have been generally resolved for weeks, according to aides familiar with the talks. The much stickier issues surrounding accountability for police misconduct, however, have been difficult to resolve.
A proposal circulated by Booker earlier this month left the existing standard for criminal civil rights prosecutions in place but added new offenses for which federal prosecutors could seek such charges, including excessive force, theft and sexual assault. It also eliminated qualified immunity by making police departments, not officers themselves, open to lawsuits. That proposal, according to aides, had the tentative support of the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Republicans, however, came back to the table wanting approval from a larger group of law enforcement groups — such as the National Sheriffs’ Association, whose members tend to be more conservative and who are frequently elected officials who campaign on tough-on-crime platforms.
The backdrop of the stalled negotiations is rising crime in many parts of the country — particularly murders and other violent crimes in big cities — as the 2022 midterm elections grow steadily closer. The trend had gotten the attention of President Biden, who on Wednesday announced new initiatives to crack down on the illegal gun trade and help police departments combat violence.
But Republicans have made clear they plan to use the issue as a political weapon ahead of the 2022 midterms, and members of both parties have feared that the politics surrounding the issue could make a policing deal impossible.
In a final floor speech before the two-week recess, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Thursday highlighted the “alarming rise of violent crime unfolding in our cities across our country” in slamming Biden’s moves on guns.
“Here in the Senate, Republicans have been focused all along on making American communities actually safer,” he said, characterizing Democratic policies as “federalizing and defunding the police.” McConnell did not mention the ongoing talks.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who is proposing legislation to help U.S. departments hire 100,000 new officers, said the willingness among Republicans to roll back qualified immunity and other protections for police officers had waned in recent months.
“Any appetite for fiddling with that is, I think, my impression is, very low,” he said. “Whereas last year you had some members say, maybe we could adjust it, I think now you’d find people saying, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’”