WASHINGTON – Congressional bargainers said Thursday they've agreed to a bipartisan framework for overhauling policing procedures, producing an upbeat but bare-bones statement that provided no details, conceded that disagreements remained and left uncertain their prospects for crafting a compromise that has eluded them for a year.
Negotiators vaguely described the status of their talks with three sentences released around dinner time Thursday as the Senate left town for a two-week recess. It came 13 months after George Floyd’s killing and with the shadow of next year’s elections lengthening over Congress’ work.
“After months of working in good faith, we have reached an agreement on a framework addressing the major issues for bipartisan police reform," the statement read. “There is still more work to be done on the final bill, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Over the next few weeks we look forward to continuing our work toward getting a finalized proposal across the finish line.”
Aides of both parties said they could provide no detail about what exactly was in the framework. It was also unclear why only three of the five negotiators' names were on the release: Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. The names of Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did not appear, though Durbin endorsed its thrust in comments to reporters.
“When you get to this level, the little things are the big things,” he said. “We want to make sure that we clear them up.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a brief statement offering President Joe Biden’s thanks to the bargainers, adding, “He looks forward to collaborating with them on the path ahead.”
Scott, the chief GOP negotiator, had set a “June or bust" goal for producing results last month. But by Thursday morning, senators of both parties said it was unlikely a deal would be reached by day's end because some details would have to be resolved when lawmakers return to Washington next month.
According to people familiar with the talks, the two most divisive issues have been Democrats’ efforts to make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties and whether to make it easier to bring criminal cases against officers for excessive use of force. The legislation is to be aimed at curbing the use of force by police and making them more accountable for abuses.
A failure to nail down a full agreement Thursday was a further blow to bargainers' efforts, draining away more time as they address an issue that came to the forefront last year with Floyd's killing. Lawmakers have already spent months trying to resolve differences, reflecting the complex web of issues and political imperatives that have prevented action so far.
Lawmakers already missed a May 25 deadline set by Biden. That date marked one year since Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, who has since been convicted in his killing.
The further into the year the talks remain unresolved, the more next year's elections for congressional control will make bipartisan cooperation harder. Efforts to curb police practices are entwined with public concerns about race and crime, and all are potent, emotional issues for both parties to use as they appeal to their most ardent base voters.
Floyd's death, which ignited racial justice protests across the country, was a campaign issue during President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid and prompted debates over crime and authorities’ use of force that rage still. An agreement would let each party assert it has addressed a consuming national problem, while a stalemate would let each blame the other and fuel next year’s political campaigns.
The Democratic-led House approved a wide-ranging bill in March that's gone nowhere in the 50-50 Senate, with Republicans arguing it goes too far. Democrats blocked a Senate GOP measure last year, saying it was too weak.
Other provisions would curb police use of chokeholds, bolster national data systems of complaints against officers and limit the types of military equipment that police departments can obtain.
The talks' painfully slow pace has fueled partisan distrust, though not among the bargainers themselves, who appear to have retained harmonious relationships.
Some in each party voice suspicions that rather than an agreement, some of their political opponents would rather have policing and crime left intact as campaign issues. Each side denies that motive, though some openly assert that should the talks collapse, they could effectively use the issue in next year’s elections.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who leads his party's Senate campaign committee, said if the talks fail, it would help Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to defund the police, a progressive proposal that Biden and many Democrats have disavowed.
"Republicans are known for supporting law enforcement. We’re known for trying to bring crime down,” Scott said.
Democrats said deadlock would anger their supporters, bolstering election turnout.
“We’re doing the right thing, and they’re trying to stop it,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who heads House Democrats' political organization. “And if they pay a political price for that, well, that’s how politics should work.”
The talks have been closely watched by powerful outside groups representing police and sheriff organizations, civil rights organizations and Floyd’s relatives, who have met with Biden and members of Congress.