Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he had asked Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to lead a working group because he had experience “dealing with this discrimination that persists some 50 years” after the civil rights movement.
“The best way is to listen to one of our own who has had these experiences,” McConnell said of Scott, who in a 2016 Senate speech described being racially profiled, including a time he was stopped by U.S. Capitol Police who questioned whether he was a lawmaker.
The response to Floyd’s death, more than previous protests of police violence against African Americans, has spurred a sea change in public opinion about racial discrimination in law enforcement.
Nearly 7 out of 10 Americans believe Floyd’s death is part of a broader systemic problem, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. That’s a significant shift since 2014, when 43 percent in a Post-ABC News poll said the police killing of a black man in Ferguson, Mo., was indicative of a larger policing problem.
Senate Republicans, increasingly nervous about holding their majority in November, seemed to sense a societal shift, announcing their effort a day after House and Senate Democrats unveiled a sweeping package of proposed changes, including a ban on chokeholds, establishment of a national database to track police misconduct and a prohibition on certain no-knock warrants, among other initiatives.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold the first congressional hearing on policing since Floyd’s death on Wednesday, with Floyd’s brother Philonise scheduled to testify.
“I think it’s important for this nation to take a very powerful stand and position that says we’re listening, we’re hearing and we’re reacting; we’re responding in a positive, constructive manner that doesn’t create a binary choice between supporting law enforcement and supporting communities of color,” Scott told reporters. “I think you can actually do both.”
The Senate GOP’s moves come as President Trump has struggled in his response to policing and the civic unrest. The president has defended “the finest law enforcement anywhere in the world” while acknowledging some mistakes.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory against a 75-year-old man in Buffalo who was pushed to the ground by police during a protest there. Most Republicans in Congress dodged questions about the president’s tweet, which seemed to side with the police over the injured civilian — including McConnell, who reiterated twice that he was focused on the package of proposals from Scott.
Scott’s plan will include a bill he first sponsored in 2015 after the death of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot in the back by police in North Charleston, S.C. The bill would require states to maintain a database any time a police officer is involved in the fatal shooting of a civilian, or risk losing federal funds.
The package would also include training for officers, such as de-escalation and perhaps bias training, and a national police commission that would help the government determine best practices for law enforcement agencies nationwide, rather than setting strict policing mandates at the federal level.
Scott told reporters he was working on a “separate track” from the White House but had been in discussion with officials there. Hours later, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Ja’Ron Smith, a White House domestic policy aide who was closely involved in the prison overhaul bill that Trump signed into law in late 2018, visited Capitol Hill to meet with Scott.
Aides said senators would like to finish the legislative package by the end of this week.
Scott’s working group includes two Republicans — Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and John Cornyn (Tex.) — who are facing reelection in traditionally red states where Democrats intend to compete. Graham’s Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, is an African American who outraised Graham in the first quarter of the year and is targeting Graham on issues of diversity.
“We’re in a national crisis relating to civil rights and criminal justice. @LindseyGrahamSC leads the Senate committee that oversees these issues. And all we get is more political games,” Harrison tweeted this week.
The group also includes Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who are heavily favored to win their reelection bids.
Scott, who has worked on several criminal justice measures on Capitol Hill, briefed GOP senators about the contours of the emerging Republican plan at a closed-door lunch on Tuesday. Most appeared to be on board with the outlines of the proposal, according to two officials familiar with the meeting, except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Paul stands to be an unusual figure in the policing debate. He has been an outspoken opponent of the militarization of police, joining with Democrats to ban the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments — a key part of the House Democratic bill. But he is also under fire for single-handedly blocking quick action on an anti-lynching bill that passed the House in February and enjoys wide support in the Senate.
He told reporters Tuesday that he would be willing to work with Democrats on a bipartisan package but said they needed to make a bona fide effort to address his issues with the anti-lynching bill, which he says could be applied too broadly to minor crimes.
“If they’re just going to make big speeches and condemn me and call me a racist or whatever they want to call me, how do they expect to get anything done?” Paul said.
There are no guarantees the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate could agree on the specifics of a bill, and also no assurance from the White House that Trump would sign it — especially with mere months until the presidential election, when the parties are less inclined to work together.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said it was possible a draft Republican policing package would be released this week and would reach the Senate floor before the end of the month.
The Republican bill, he said, would be more limited than the Democrats’ bill, which would institute a host of new accountability measures.
“Obviously theirs was a lot more far-reaching in some areas probably than what our members would be willing to support, but I do think . . . there’s common ground to be found,” Thune said.
But there will be discord within the more limited framework on the Republican plan, as well. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) contradicted his colleagues who are urging swift action on policing reforms.
“Anything that would reflect and impose on the law enforcement officers in America that they’re not doing their job or they’re somehow, it’s all negative, as the Democrats are trying to declare, is wrong, and I would oppose anything that they propose,” he said.
But some GOP senators appeared willing to entertain more-aggressive reforms. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he was seriously considering whether to back changes to the immunity doctrine, reversing a five-decade-old federal court precedent.
The Democratic proposal, long sought by civil rights advocates, would change “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits, by lowering the bar for plaintiffs to sue officers for alleged civil rights violations.
“Most in our conference don’t want to go that far, but I’m really going out to see if I can get a few others interested in looking at that,” he said, saying that embracing the change would “show them, in our conference, we mean business.”