But as the day wore on, Democrats increasingly sniped at Republicans over what they claimed were efforts to drag in extraneous issues that turned the focus away from questions of race. That dynamic turned heated when Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, accused the all-white Republican side of the dais of racial bias, “unconscious” or otherwise, and said they were making “a mockery of the pain that exists in my community.”
Richmond’s remarks, which included a reference to his son, prompted an exchange with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who questioned how Richmond could be certain none of the Republicans on the panel had black children.
“I already know there are people on the other side who have black grandchildren,” Richmond replied. “It is not about the color of your kids. It is about black males, black people in the streets that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid I’m concerned about him too. And clearly I’m more concerned about him than you are.”
Gaetz shot back angrily, saying Richmond went over the line: “You’re claiming you’re more concerned for my family than I do? Who in the hell do you think you are?”
The exchange encapsulated a day of raw emotion on Capitol Hill. To Democrats, speed is of the essence — not only because of the realities of the political calendar but because after decades of failed efforts to implement sweeping reform, the national landscape has shifted after the killing by police of George Floyd and created an opening for genuine action.
Republicans on the committee, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), emphasized that they wanted a more deliberative approach, citing measures offered by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and an executive order by President Donald Trump as thoughtful steps in the right direction.
Those measures beef up police reporting requirements and encourage reforms — but don’t mandate them. Republicans also offered amendments to ask the FBI for a report on whether “antifa” is a domestic terrorist organization and to bar federal grants to a so-called “autonomous zone” in Seattle that Republicans have described as a lawless antifa stronghold but local Democrats and the mayor have said is a venue for peaceful protest. Other GOP amendments would have struck the qualified immunity provision in the bill and would raise the maximum sentence for lynching crimes to the death penalty.
“The vast majority of police officers do a great job. They’re the individuals who rushed into the towers on 9/11 …They’re the individuals who put on their uniforms every single shift and risk their lives,” Jordan said, urging Democrats to support some of the GOP amendments. “It didn’t start off that way. Not one single Republican was consulted. I hope today that you will embrace our thoughtful amendments that we plan to offer.”
The debate stretched late into the evening Wednesday, despite what seemed to be an inevitable result: the party-line advancement of the bill, which could come to the House floor as soon as next week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that the Senate will take up the GOP’s policing bill next week. But senior Democrats on the Judiciary panel were quick to dismiss to GOP bill during the midday recess, calling it a half-measure that doesn’t match the needs of those protesting for reform.
“What Senator Scott is offering is a sham,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, also panned the Republican bill, saying it “mimics” Democrats’ proposal “but without the teeth.”
“In our bill we are concerned about chokeholds, ‘no knock’ provisions as well as a registry, so that if there is an officer that has committed violence, an officer that is corrupt, that would be a transparent process,” Bass said.
“The registry that Sen. Scott calls for, there is no transparency there, it would only be known by law enforcement. On no knock [warrants], what Sen. Scott wants to do is compile data. On chokeholds, what he wants to do is study the situation.”
And Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the GOP proposal “window dressing” and “toothless” in an interview on CNN Wednesday.
The Judiciary Committee itself is part of the story: the Democratic side of the panel includes a slew of minority lawmakers, including Bass, the House’s fifth-ranking Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Richmond, a liaison to the campaign of Vice President Joe Biden.
The Republican side of the panel features an array of members closely allied with President Donald Trump, including Jordan, Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who closely aligned himself with Trump during impeachment proceedings and is running for Senate.
Yet, unlike previous efforts at police reform, there appears to be room — however narrow — for bipartisan compromise. Members of the Judiciary Committee like Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a former public defender, have engaged with Democrats to find areas of agreement on policies like police body cameras, qualified immunity and sentencing disparities.
Armstrong said he’s had productive discussions with committee Democrats including Richmond, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Joe Neguse of Colorado, on potential bipartisan legislation. But he noted that the committee, historically an emblem of congressional partisanship and strained this Congress by impeachment, has “a lot of trust problems.”
And that was apparent in the panel’s first vote Wednesday — with Democrats voting down Armstrong’s amendment to require federal law enforcement agencies to record all interviews with potential suspects.
Democrats initially asked Armstrong to withdraw the amendment so they could work together on incorporating the idea into the final bill. But Armstrong refused as he and several other Republicans connected the proposal to the FBI’s 2017 interview with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who Trump allies allege was railroaded by law enforcement.
Democrats slammed Republicans’ repeated efforts to reignite the Flynn debate, saying this hearing was about the countless unarmed black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of police.
“We’re not here to talk about Michael Flynn. That’s beneath the dignity of this institution and the lives that have been lost,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries then gave powerful testimony about having to have “that conversation” with his teenage son before he participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn recently.
“Some may even look at you as a threat because of the color of your skin…Do not respond or react to any unjustified abuse against you,” Jeffries recounted to the committee. “Even if you’re completely in the right, you’re being harassed, you’re being abused, you can’t respond — because it may result in your life being taken.”
Though there’s a long road before any potential bipartisan compromise reaches Trump’s desk, the rush of activity belies the typical election-year gridlock that all but stifles major policy-making in the sensitive months before the vote. The ongoing coronavirus crisis, which already spurred lawmakers to enact multi-trillion-dollar legislation, seemed certain to sap the enthusiasm for additional major legislation this year.
Yet, Floyd’s death and the nationwide demonstrations that followed galvanized public opinion so rapidly that it spurred typically cautious lawmakers to action.
Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this story.