WASHINGTON — The House passed a sweeping overhaul of policing rules Thursday on a near party-line vote with little expectation it will break a partisan stalemate that’s put any Senate plans to act on hold.
The legislation, named the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act after the Black American man who died a month ago at the hands of Minneapolis police, passed 236-181. Three Republicans joined all Democrats in voting for the measure.
Bill author Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the legislation would “transform policing in America.”
“We are supposed to be the beacon of hope for human rights in other countries, and the Justice in Policing Act is a bill for human rights in our country,” Bass, a California Democrat, said before the vote.
The Democratic bill, H.R.7120, was opposed by the White House. President Donald Trump accused Democrats of wanting to “weaken the police” in part because it would make it easier for police officers to be sued in brutality cases. GOP leaders in the House had urged members to vote against it.
The House action came a day after a less stringent policing plan proposed by Senate Republicans was blocked by Democrats who said it was inadequate to address police brutality in response to massive demonstrations across the U.S.
While Democrats held out hope that the passage by the House would force negotiations, some key Republicans said it’s likely a dead issue in the Senate.
“It seems to be,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “It’s a shame but we are where we are.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who authored the GOP plan, said the momentum behind the legislation “is dissipating as we speak.”
Democrats “are playing a dangerous game of politics that they can afford to wait until November or next year,” said Scott, the only Black Republican in the chamber. “They may be right, but it’s a dangerous game.”
Democrats are banking on continued street protests and a surge of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement to put pressure on Senate Republicans.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released Wednesday found that by a margin to 59 percent to 30 percent, those surveyed think Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month is part of a pattern of police violence, and that 57 percent support the protests. The survey was conducted June 17-22 by telephone calls in English and Spanish to 1,337 registered voters, with an error margin of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.
Senate Democrats said Scott’s measure lacked sufficient enforcement measures to hold rogue police officers to account and didn’t do enough to eliminate deadly practices such as choke-holds and no-knock warrants used to enter homes in drug cases.
Republicans said they would have allowed floor amendments on those matters and alleged Democrats would rather have policing as an election-year issue than find a compromise.
“Our Democratic colleagues tried to say with straight faces that they want the Senate to discuss police reform — while they blocked the Senate from discussing police reform,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
McConnell has scheduled the Senate to debate the annual national defense policy bill next, ahead of a two-week July 4 recess. The Senate expects to debate an economic stimulus plan after July 20.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “The debate on policing reform is only over for those who want it to be over.” The New York Democrat added, “And maybe for those who never truly wanted this debate in the first place.”
Bass said in an interview she plans to talk to Scott, the Republican sponsor of the Senate bill, and sees a basis for compromise as pressure continues.
“I don’t view this situation as being over at all,” she said. “I hope people protest every single day.”
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, one of two Black Democrats in the Senate and a sponsor of his party’s version of the legislation, said that activism will “push this Congress to catch up to history.”
The biggest areas of disagreement center on GOP opposition to Democratic efforts to end “qualified immunity” that protects individual officers from lawsuits, lower the “guilty mind” standard needed to criminally prosecute police; create a national database of complaints against officers, end no-knock warrants in drug cases, and stop military hardware from being turned over to local police.
Republicans argue that the changes on lawsuits would cause police to hesitate in emergency situations, potentially costing lives.
Lower standards on lawsuits or prosecutions of police would mean “an officer will not only put his life on the line every time he is working a shift, but he will put his home, his possessions, and the sanctity of his family on the line,” wrote House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs of Arizona in a Washington Examiner opinion essay. “It also means that it will be even harder to recruit and retain officers.”
Republicans say banning no-knock warrants would be dangerous in some cases involving heavily armed drug kingpins, and that a database of complaints could include unfounded allegations against police.
The three House Republicans who voted for the measure were Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan.