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Senate Democrats block GOP police reform bill, saying it falls short of what's needed

Senate Democrats block GOP police reform bill, saying it falls short of what's needed

WASHINGTON — Despite nationwide protests against police misconduct and racial injustice, the prospects for swift congressional action are grim after Senate Republicans failed Wednesday to advance their legislation.

The chamber’s Republicans were unified in supporting the proposal, but nearly all Senate Democrats joined together to block its consideration, saying that it falls far short of what’s demanded by those marching in the streets.

Republicans responded by suggesting that their counterparts are more interested in preserving a campaign issue for November than making progress on a pressing situation.

“It’s really hard to see this as anything other than Democrats playing politics today,” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska told The World-Herald following the vote.

Sasse was part of a Republican working group on the issue. He said the GOP legislation might not be perfect, but it would mean more police body cameras, mandatory reporting on the use of lethal force and increased recruiting of officers from communities of color. He said that it’s absurd for Democrats to characterize such steps as meaningless and that Democrats rejected an offer to hold votes on 20 or more of their own amendments to the bill.

“That doesn’t seem to me like people who are actually serious about getting something done,” Sasse said. “So it doesn’t look promising from here.”

House Democrats are expected to approve their own policing legislation Thursday. The two parties have sparred over the degree of separation between the competing proposals.

Republicans say they’re about 70% similar, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they are “like night and day.”

Schumer described the GOP bill as a fig leaf aimed at providing political cover without bringing any real change to the system. It’s too flawed to function as the starting point for meaningful reform, he said.

“It does nothing to stop racial profiling, the militarization of police or reform ‘use of force’ standards and qualified immunity,” Schumer said.

Democrats are calling for a national registry that would include complaints, disciplinary records and termination records. Their bill also would require states to report detailed information to the Justice Department about any incident in which force is used against a civilian or law enforcement officer.

The Democrats’ bill would specifically ban no-knock warrants for all federal drug cases and would require local and state law enforcement agencies to prohibit their use to qualify for some federal funding.

Democrats also would amend federal misconduct statutes to make it easier for courts to find officers personally liable for the violation of civil rights.

Republicans, like Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, say opening police up to personal liability would make it difficult to recruit quality officers.

“If you know that you could lose your house, you could lose everything you own, just to have the honor of serving as a police officer — no way,” Ernst said. “They just won’t apply. They won’t do it.”

Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley both criticized Democrats for blocking even consideration of the legislation.

“Why not bring it up, get the process going, respond to the will of the people demonstrated by these peaceful demonstrations?” Grassley asked.

GOP Sen. Deb Fischer sided with her fellow Republicans in backing the measure, saying it represents long-term solutions focused on transparency.

House Democrats are expected to approve their legislation on Thursday although it’s unclear how much Republican backing it will garner.

Rep. Don Bacon opposes it and said he instead supports the Republican bill that was shot down by Senate Democrats.

Fellow Nebraska GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry declined to say how he’ll vote Thursday but said he’s looking at how to improve police training and accountability.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, backs the Democrats’ bill, calling it an important first step in tackling racism, saving lives and holding law enforcement accountable.

And Axne sought to offer some hope that a bipartisan agreement remains possible.

“I know there are some differences between our bill and the Senate version — but this is not a time for any congressional leader to just say ‘take it or leave it,’ ” Axne said. “In Iowa, we got important first steps at reform passed and signed into law with near unanimous support — and I believe that we have similar bipartisan momentum here.”

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH.

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