Policing, guns, voting rights: Historic Democratic goals hit Senate skids
House Democrats late Wednesday approved a momentous overhaul of American policing, responding to decades of frustration over racial injustice in law enforcement. But their plan is headed for a roadblock: the U.S. Senate.
Even as Democrats control all of Washington for the first time in a decade, a series of priorities that are hugely important to their liberal base — and to making good on President Joe Biden’s campaign promises — have begun piling up in the Senate. That backlog will grow over the next two weeks as Speaker Nancy Pelosi tees up votes on bills to expand voting rights, enact universal background checks for gun purchases and protect so-called Dreamers.
The prospect of those historic measures sliding into Senate stasis after House passage is infuriating to progressives — particularly on issues like the party’s signature policing bill, which has overwhelming grassroots energy behind it. But with the upper chamber’s legislative filibuster remaining intact, Democrats have no way to get much of their agenda to Biden’s desk without winning at least 10 GOP votes while keeping their 50-member caucus united.
That political reality in the Senate is likely to spur negotiations with the GOP about concessions that would be tough to stomach for many progressive Democrats, including longtime civil rights advocates who invested significant energy in the House’s policing bill. And as a result, pressure is sure to mount on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to nuke the filibuster once and for all.
“To get any other good bills passed, such as police reform, we’re going to need to — in my view — talk about filibuster reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who described the previous GOP offer on the issue as “not acceptable.”
The Democrats’ policing measure passed entirely along party lines in the House, though it contains key provisions that both parties rallied behind in the wake of last summer’s racial reckoning.
Schumer told reporters Wednesday that getting the bill to the Senate floor was a “very, very high priority” for Democrats.
“We are not going to settle for some bill that does nothing and is symbolic,” he said. “We will work very, very hard to get it passed. We will have a vote on the floor on it.”
But whatever can pass the Senate on policing is bound to look different from the House’s hard-won legislation. Senators in both parties said this week that they could make a renewed attempt at compromise on the bill’s most prominent — and most popular — measures, such as banning chokeholds or “no-knock” warrants.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who led his chamber’s GOP police reform effort during the last Congress, predicted that the House bill would go nowhere in the Senate, noting “it’s the same one that they passed before.” However, Scott said he’d spoken to his Democratic counterpart, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, in policing talks as recently as last weekend.
“It just depends on their definition of bipartisan,” Scott said, when asked if a compromise was possible. “It depends on whether or not their bill includes demonizing police officers or not.”
Following the House’s passage of the bill, Booker said that he was encouraged by conversations with senators on both sides of the aisle and vowed “to advance policing reform through the Senate.”
Resolving differences between the parties could prove particularly troublesome when it comes to eliminating qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits and makes it harder to hold them accountable when a crime is committed on the job.
Underscoring the trouble ahead for the House-passed bill, Senate Republicans this week accused Democrats of blocking reform efforts last year by filibustering the GOP version of the bill. Democrats counter that the previous proposal was inadequate.
And any compromise that amounts to less than the House-passed bill would be a disappointment to the cadre of civil rights groups that have spent years, or even decades, fighting for many of the policy changes in the House policing bill.
Democrats say they’ve seen unparalleled clamor for policing reform from their base, perhaps more than any other single issue in recent years. Groups such as the NAACP, National Urban League and National Action Network are stepping up their pressure on lawmakers, calling for the passage of the House-approved bill and working with allies in Congress.
“We need to center the concerns of people who live every day with the tragic contradictions of our criminal justice system. We need to keep in mind the victims and their families,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, elected this year as Georgia’s first Black senator. “I think too often in the process of legislation, the urgency and the human side of what’s at stake gets lost. And so I hope to amplify that.”
Several leaders of prominent civil rights organizations said they have been in contact with Congressional Black Caucus members over the last week to reinforce their desire to see this legislation make it to Biden’s desk.
But they also acknowledged that reaching their goal won’t be easy.
“We’re full speed ahead,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans. Even so, he added, “we’re going to have some work to do” in the Senate.
Morial said he and other civil rights leaders plan to talk with senators who are on the fence about the House policing legislation.
Now that the House has passed a measure “that’s reflective of what we have been advocating for,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, “we will recalibrate and start over” with active outreach to senators.
House-Senate conversations already are unfolding behind the scenes. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a lead author of the bill, has been privately speaking with Booker and Scott as they attempt to find a path forward this year. (Booker’s office did not provide comment for this story.)
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a freshman who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County and made policing a major part of his campaign, said House Democrats will need to keep squeezing their counterparts across the Capitol to finally end policies like qualified immunity.
“We have to work behind the scenes with our colleagues in the Senate, to help them understand how this is better for, not just communities of color and poor communities, but it’s better for the country,” Bowman said. He stressed there’s more to do: “This is the floor, not the ceiling.”
A bipartisan group that included Bass, Scott and Booker made progress toward a compromise last year, though things fell apart as the election neared. Police reform advocates also took hope last year as Republicans like Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and Rand Paul of Kentucky publicly expressed interest in holding police officers accountable — even endorsing some changes to qualified immunity. But it’s unclear how much that dynamic has changed in a Democratic-controlled Washington.
One thing that’s already shifted is the political spotlight on Schumer, who’s up for reelection next year and has vowed that the Senate will not be a “legislative graveyard” under his leadership. He’s hearing increasingly vocal calls from House Democrats to nix the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — including from two of Pelosi’s top deputies.
Both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) this week called for changes to the legislative filibuster, citing the fate of the House-passed policing bill as well as its sweeping voting rights bill — both issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans.
The Senate’s tough odds for progressive legislation sparked an emotional recollection from Clyburn Tuesday. Telling reporters of his arrest 60 years ago this week for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, he vowed that “we are not going to give up on this.”
“Nobody thought that day that one of those little 20-year-olds arrested on that day would be standing here today,” Clyburn said moments after railing against the Senate’s filibuster, which was used in the past to block civil rights legislation.
“We’re not going to just give in to these arcane methods of denying progress,” Clyburn said.