House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have tentatively scheduled votes on their respective proposals late next week, at which point the two sides could begin the first substantive bipartisan talks on racial justice since George Floyd’s Memorial Day death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
But Wednesday’s actions on Capitol Hill signal the election-year battle ahead could be rocky. In the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans used their debate time to rehash arguments about the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation, abortion and the liberal movement to “defund the police,” all matters that left Democrats exasperated.
“It seems like we keep having these conversations about nothing that has to do with this bill,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and co-author of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
After an 11-hour session, the committee approved the bill on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House.
The debate came as prosecutors in Atlanta responded to the death of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was killed in police custody, by bringing charges of felony murder against the former Atlanta police officer who fatally shot Brooks on Friday night outside a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. announced a total of 11 charges against the former officer, Garrett Rolfe, at an afternoon news conference, calling Brooks’s killing unjustified and finding that Brooks posed no threat to Rolfe’s life during the encounter.
Rolfe’s colleague, Officer Devin Brosnan, was charged with aggravated assault. Brosnan will become a cooperating witness for the state, Howard said, making Brosnan one of the first Atlanta police officers to testify against a colleague in such a case. Brooks’s death — which came less than two weeks after Floyd died in Minneapolis — sparked fresh waves of protest in Atlanta and other cities.
Despite the continued calls for action — public polls show more than 2-to-1 support for outlawing the type of restraint that killed Floyd — the two sides engaged in heated debate Wednesday that showed pitched battles still lie ahead.
In the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) grew angry with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) over the GOP focus on the far-left network known as antifa, though there is no evidence the group is driving the nationwide protests.
“It’s not about the color of your kids. It’s about black males, black people in the street that are being killed. . . . If one of them happens to be your kid, I’m more concerned about him than you,” Richmond said.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Gaetz shouted.
Lawmakers also were at odds over the issue of “qualified immunity” for police that can make the prosecution of officers difficult. Republicans offered an amendment to strike language from the bill ending qualified immunity for police; it failed largely on a party-line vote.
Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans unveiled legislation that avoids mandating certain changes in police practices. It would establish a commission to lead a comprehensive review of policing tactics to establish best practices for officers and encourage de-escalation training.
McConnell, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and other leading Senate Republicans promoted the bill at a morning news conference and urged Democratic senators — whose help would be needed to advance the measure — to at least allow a floor debate to proceed when GOP leaders introduce the legislation next week.
“We’re serious about making a law here,” McConnell said. “This is not about trying to create partisan differences. This is about coming together and getting an outcome.”
Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, led the effort in drafting the bill.
“If you support America, you support restoring the confidence that communities of color have in institutions of authority,” Scott said. “If you support America, that means you know that the overwhelming number of officers in this nation want to do their job, go home to their families. It is not a binary choice. This legislation encompasses that spirit.”
But Democrats dismissed the GOP proposal as insufficient.
“I appreciate that he understands that we’ve got a serious problem, but frankly, it gives lip service to the problem. There’s just no teeth in it,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the co-author of the Senate version of the Democratic police proposal, told reporters Wednesday.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called the bill a “token, halfhearted approach,” sparking Republican outrage over the racial tinge in the word “token.”
“To call this a token process hurts my soul for my country, for our people,” Scott responded in an emotional speech on the Senate floor.
Scott noted that the unveiling of the legislation came on the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in which a white supremacist killed nine African Americans who engaged in Bible study.
Durbin later issued a statement through his spokesman saying he sought out Scott and apologized. He explained that he meant to direct his criticism at McConnell for setting up “a halfhearted approach” on such an important topic.
Floyd’s death led to a significant shift in public opinion about police treatment of minorities, with Republicans and Democrats insisting that change was long overdue and demanding legislative remedies. The question is whether the rhetoric collapses against election-year inaction in a divided Congress.
McConnell has said the Democratic bill, which has 227 co-sponsors in the House and 36 in the Senate, is “going nowhere” in his chamber. The bill would establish a national database to track police misconduct and make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal court, among its provisions.
The competing GOP proposal would require local law enforcement agencies to report all officer-involved deaths to the FBI and encourage broader use of body-worn cameras for officers. Pelosi said it was insufficient.
“House Democrats hope to work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that creates meaningful change to end the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality in America,” she said. “The Senate proposal of studies and reporting without transparency and accountability is inadequate. The Senate’s so-called Justice Act is not action.”
In a day-long session that stretched into the evening, the House Judiciary Committee debated the legislation and unsuccessful GOP efforts to change it.
Republicans offered an amendment that would have mandated that the FBI record its interviews and not just rely on notes from agents, which has become a mantra for House Republicans after the case against Michael Flynn.
Flynn was the highest-ranking Trump adviser convicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. In appearances before two different judges, Flynn admitted lying.
The committee rejected that amendment largely along party lines.
The developments on the Hill came as President Trump announced executive action on police reforms Tuesday, formally unveiling steps to offer new federal incentives for local police to bolster training and create a national database to track misconduct.
Democrats and civil rights groups widely criticized the president’s effort as insufficient.
During his floor speech, Scott recounted other legislative efforts since the 2015 shooting in his state to collect more information on policing and reform practices.
“Walter Scott in my hometown of North Charleston, running away from the police, gets shot five times in the back,” said the senator. “I sponsored legislation then, and I don’t remember a single person saying a single thing on that side of the aisle about helping to push forward more legislation on body cameras. But today this is a token piece of legislation.”
Pelosi already has enough votes to pass her proposal in the House, leaving most of the suspense in the Senate, where Republicans believe they have enough votes for a simple majority. The question is whether Senate Democrats, whose proposal was offered by Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Harris, will block Scott’s legislation on a procedural vote or allow a more lengthy debate.
If senators don’t advance the bill, Scott said, “we’ll just talk about scoring political points. You’ll go on MSNBC or CNN and we’ll go on Fox and we’ll continue to have our chatter and more folks will have less confidence in this nation because we missed a moment. We missed it five years ago. We don’t have to miss it now.”
Scott Clement and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.