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Police overhaul reform effort dims as bill blocked by Democrats

By LISA MASCARO, AP Congressional Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican policing bill stalled out Wednesday, blocked by Senate Democrats who dismissed it as meager “crumbs” in a vote that signals the collapse for now of Congress’s efforts to respond to mass demonstrations over the killings of Black people.

With a tally fell that almost exclusively along party lines, Congress reached a familiar impasse despite public outcry over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Americans. Polling shows the country overwhelmingly wants changes. But in the stalemate, Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other as a generational crisis over racial injustice and police tactics explodes outside the doors.

“I’m frustrated,” said Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator and the author of the GOP legislation.

“The issue is, do we matter?” he asked, echoing the words of the Black Lives Matter movement, during an impassioned Senate speech that drew applause from his colleagues. “We said no today.”

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The outlook ahead is uncertain, as Democrats press forward Thursday with a House vote on their bill, a more sweeping package that is certain to be approved. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to try again before the July 4 recess. Yet swift action seems difficult.

With the standoff, the parties are settled into their political comfort zones, even if they are displeased with the actual outcome. Republicans are lined up squarely behind Scott, a uniquely credible voice in the chamber recounting his personal experience with racism at the hands of police. Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are standing with progressive and civil rights activists urging outright rejection of the Republican approach.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., brushed aside the GOP bill as inadequate crumbs that don’t respond to a movement that stretches from Emmett Till to Rodney King to today.

“We are part of a movement that started a long time ago and this movement will not be deterred,” Harris said.

She urged colleagues to “let the beginning be today” and start new talks toward a better bill.

The GOP’s Justice Act is seen by both Republicans and Democrats as a starting point in the broader debate over how best to change policing practices. It would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures and commissions to study race and law enforcement.

The package from Republicans is not as sweeping as a Democratic proposal, the Justice in Policing Act, which mandates many of the changes and would go further by changing the federal statute for police misconduct and holding officers personally liable to damages in lawsuits.

A constellation of high-profile civil rights, celebrity and industry leaders have lined up behind the Democratic bill, while the Congressional Black Caucus urged a no vote on the GOP bill. Law enforcement and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged both parties to find common ground.

President Donald Trump supported the GOP effort as a “great bill.” But he acknowledged during an event Wednesday at the White House that the differences with the Democrats may mean that no bill becomes law.

“If nothing happens with it,” Trump said with a shrug of his shoulders, “it’s one of those things. We have different philosophies.”

The vote was 55-45, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance. Two Democrats, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, along with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted with Republicans to open the debate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats as engaging in “political nonsense.” He switched his vote to no, a procedural move so he could swiftly bring the bill back for reconsideration.

Vice President Mike Pence joined a Senate GOP lunch after the vote, but it appeared they mainly discussed the COVID-19 crisis, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

As talks potentially continue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans to the negotiating table . The two bills, the House and Senate versions, would ultimately need to be the same to become law.

Scott vowed to remain open to many of the changes Democrats are proposing, such as fully banning chokeholds or collecting more thorough data on police misconduct. And McConnell has pledged to allow plenty of debate on potential amendments.

But the depth of Democrats’ distrust of McConnell runs deep, and the senators are withholding their votes as leverage, believing once the House Democrats pass their bill, Senate Republicans facing the groundswell of public sentiment will have no choice but to negotiate.

Neither bill goes as far as some activists want with calls to defund the police and shift resources to other community services.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., another co-author of the Democrats bill, noted that McConnell calls himself the “Grim Reaper” for letting House bills die in the Senate, and questioned if he will do the same this time.

But tensions are running high on a topic has torn the country apart, almost since its founding.
Republicans criticized Pelosi for saying Republicans are “trying to get away with murder, actually — the murder of George Floyd” with their bill.

Scott on Tuesday played for colleagues the racist and threatening voice mail messages he has recently received. Some senators were shocked, and suggested he needs security protection, a Scott aide said. The senator is considering options, his aide said.

Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Andrew Taylor and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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