The House Judiciary Committee advanced a sweeping police reform bill late Wednesday following a day of emotional exchanges and pitched anger among lawmakers on the panel as they confronted questions about institutional racism and police brutality against black Americans.
After nearly 12 hours of tense debate, the committee approved the bill along party lines with all Republicans voting in opposition. The Democrats’ plan, which will go to the House floor next week, would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit officers’ immunity from prosecution and establish a national database of police misconduct.
Senior Democrats, led by Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.), quickly crafted the comprehensive reform bill in response to the nationwide unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis on May 25. The GOP-controlled Senate will take up its own police reform bill next week but the proposal has already been widely panned by Democrats as “toothless” and “a sham.”
Still, senior lawmakers in both parties continue to insist they can come to a compromise that will reach President Donald Trump’s desk in the coming weeks. Both parties and the president feel pressure to act as protests continue for the third straight week — a nation unabating in its fury over the senseless killings of unarmed black Americans by police.
Democrats on the Judiciary panel spent almost a dozen hours Wednesday sweeping aside a series of Republican amendments, including a proposal to require that police interviews with suspects be recorded, a proposal Democrats said they were open to at later stages of the process.
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 Floyd’s killing 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 signed by Trump earlier this week 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 “terrorist” stronghold. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who sits on the panel fiercely pushed back on that claim, saying the area is a venue for peaceful protest.
Other GOP amendments offered Wednesday would have struck the qualified immunity provision in the bill and would raise the maximum sentence for lynching crimes to the death penalty.
“Not one single Republican was consulted” in the crafting of the bill, said Jordan, the top Republican on the panel. “I hope today that you will embrace our thoughtful amendments that we plan to offer.”
But Democrats did not relent as the debate stretched late into the evening Wednesday, despite what was an inevitable result: the party-line advancement of the bill. The House will vote on the bill June 25, with enough Democrats already signed on as cosponsors to guarantee its passage.
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, 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.
Bass, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, panned the Republican bill, saying it “mimics” Democrats’ proposal “but without the teeth.”
And Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the GOP proposal “window dressing” and “toothless” in an interview on CNN Wednesday.
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,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) 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.”
Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this story.
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