Still, amid nationwide protests demanding action, Washington may not have another opportunity for a breakthrough. Momentum could easily fade in the coming weeks and months as Congress shifts its attention back to the coronavirus and elections. If Joe Biden is elected president, reviving the economy or a host of other issues could be his top priority.
“There’s some common ground if you want it. If you want to play politics we’ll go nowhere,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose committee would kick off any legislative effort. “The first thing I want to do is find out: Are Democrats willing to work with us to find something?”
Graham said he’d spoken to several Democratic senators and there was some desire to reprise what happened on criminal justice reform. Even knowing they were about to take over the House, Democrats accepted a relatively modest bill in the 2018 lame duck session to reform some sentencing practices. But the political terrain is far different amid a serious challenge for both the White House and the Senate.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has worked closely with Scott and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on an anti-lynching bill that’s stalled. But she said she hasn’t studied Scott’s plans and prefers her own proposal, which mirrors a major policing overhaul drafted by House Democrats.
“This Republican proposal is heavy on gestures and light on meaningful reforms that will root out the systemic injustices that are baked into our justice system and policing practices,” Booker added. “If we’re serious about confronting police brutality and excessive use of force, this bill is not the solution.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to bring the House back to pass Democrats’ bill in two weeks, adding pressure on the Senate to act.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said it’s too soon to say that Scott’s ideas should be summarily dismissed. But he said Americans don’t want “incrementalism and window dressing.”
“I respect Tim Scott because he’s lived it. But Mitch McConnell has a way of finding ways to sort of let the air out of the balloon without making change,” Heinrich said. “That won’t work this time around.”
McConnell said on Tuesday he recognized that discrimination still “persists” in America and that by deputizing Scott he was recognizing that “the best way for Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own.” However, in the past two years, McConnell has also talked hopefully about bringing big issues like immigration reform and gun restrictions to the Senate floor — efforts that never materialized.
And Democrats believe there’s reason to believe this episode is more like last year’s abrupt breakdown on gun background checks than like the criminal justice reform package that was signed into law.
“Is this going to be another situation just like with gun control? Just like with background checks where they talked a good game, tried to make the issue fade away and did nothing?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumerasked on Wednesday. “The nation will not let this issue fade away. I assure my Republican friends.”
The parties are already skirmishing. Schumer on Wednesday rejected a non-binding resolution from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) honoring Floyd and condemning the movement to defund the police. Schumer then tried to commit the Senate to considering the House’s sweeping police reform bill, which Cotton rejected.
Scott said it was too early to be worried about Democrats rejecting his legislation as too piecemeal. He also said sweeping, federal programs envisioned by Democrats won’t be able to pass in the current political environment. Even as Republicans show greater openness to reforms, the party is still led by a “law-and-order” president and has long resisted police crackdowns.
“I don’t see how those things get to the finish line,” Scott said of outlawing chokeholds and scaling back police officers’ “qualified immunity.” Asked about Democrats’ early skepticism that he would go big enough, Scott replied: “Patience. Patience.”
But Democrats might be patient enough to wait until after the election to enact their own view of reform. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for example, said any bill that doesn’t change the ability to sue police officers would not go far enough for him. He called Scott a “good man” but was skeptical the two parties could come to a deal.
“Just saying we’ve done something is not enough. We have to take this moment in history and make a significant change,” Durbin said. “Just doing some kind of symbolic effort is not enough.”