There were two men who gave speeches on Wednesday. Both advocated police reform.
One was President Joe Biden. When he used his speech before a joint session of Congress to urge the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Vice President Kamala Harris rose to her feet and clapped.
The other was South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, who gave the Republican response to Biden’s speech. When he proposed police reform legislation last year, Harris — then a senator — helped filibuster it so it never saw the Senate floor.
To understand the saga, we have to go back to last year, when police reform became a hot-button topic in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The Democrat-controlled House quickly got behind the legislation that bears Floyd’s name, passing it on a 236-181 vote last June. The vote was along party lines; according to the roll call, only three Republicans broke ranks — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, William Hurd of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan.
Republicans’ biggest issue with the bill was that it eliminated qualified immunity, the doctrine that government officials who believe they’re acting lawfully and constitutionally have immunity from lawsuits unless — as per the Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald — they violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
According to Axios, Scott called the qualified immunity package a “poison pill” in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. He offered his own alternative, the JUSTICE Act, a compromise that established strict data collection standards on the use of force and no-knock warrants, as well as incentives for chokehold bans and body cameras.
The Democrats refused to even let it progress to the floor for a vote.
“We will not meet this moment by holding a floor vote on the JUSTICE Act, nor can we simply amend this bill, which is so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations,” then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker wrote in a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“This bill is not salvageable and we need bipartisan talks to get to a constructive starting point,” they said.
According to Vox, the Democrats stopped it from going to the floor by refusing to lend the 60 votes it needed to overcome the filibuster and enter open debate; the final tally was 55-45.
It was probably best remembered for an unpleasant racial dog-whistle from Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, then the Senate minority whip, who said it was “a token, half-hearted approach.”
— Mark Bednar (@MarkBednar) June 17, 2020
The possibility of finding a constructive starting point thus having been blown to smithereens, both sides remained at loggerheads and police reform got dropped.
Fast forward to March and the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act a second time, this time by a narrower 220-212 margin. It was again passed almost entirely along party lines, according to the roll call. It’s clearly divisive legislation — and yet, during his speech Wednesday, Biden made it sound like a perfect opportunity for unity.
President Biden urges Congress to act on police reform and calls for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to pass the Senate by next month, the first anniversary of Floyd’s death https://t.co/TmSltziMQw pic.twitter.com/1UfedvtLx9
— CNN (@CNN) April 29, 2021
“My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already,” the president said.
“I know the Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats. We need to work together to find a consensus,” he said. “Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. The country supports this reform. Congress should act.”
Harris stood and clapped vigorously, apparently forgetting she actively worked to nix “productive discussions” to “find a consensus” on police reform last summer by shutting down debate on the JUSTICE Act.
Scott made sure we didn’t forget in his response less than an hour later, also noting he was fighting for police reform long before Senate Democrats were.
“In 2015, after the shooting of Walter Scott, I wrote a bill to fund body cameras. Last year, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I built an even bigger police reform proposal,” Scott said. “But my Democratic colleagues blocked it.
“I extended an olive branch. I offered them amendments. But Democrats used the filibuster to block the debate from even happening. My friends across the aisle seemed to want the issue more than they wanted a solution.”
But remember, if Republicans use the filibuster on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, they’re racists leaning on a crutch from the Jim Crow era.
Police reform can’t just be an issue wielded like a cudgel. The strictures we place on police officers could mean the difference between life and death. Eliminating qualified immunity could clog the courts with baseless lawsuits.
The president is right — there needs to be a consensus for there to be an effective police reform package.
Consensus, however, isn’t just Senate Republicans agreeing to whatever Democrats in the House pass and Democrats agreeing that Senate Republicans made the right decision.
It requires discussion and debate, two things Harris shot down last year when she and her fellow Senate Democrats refused to even hear Scott’s legislation.
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