WASHINGTON – Prospects seem increasingly faint for a bipartisan Senate deal on overhauling policing practices as deadlocked lawmakers have fled the Capitol for August recess and political pressure for an accord eases with each passing week.
Bargainers insist they’re still talking and haven’t abandoned hope, though they’ve repeatedly blown past self-imposed deadlines. This spring, President Joe Biden pumped momentum into talks with a nationally televised address telling Congress to “get it done” by May 25, the anniversary of a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd, a Black man.
That didn’t happen.
Now, Washington's focus is shifting to Biden's drive to spend trillions on social, environmental and public works programs, one of many budget showdowns that will clog Congress' autumn calendar. With next year's elections for House and Senate control edging closer, both parties are increasingly compelled to stock up on issues they can use against their rivals, weakening the political will for compromise.
“We all have to make sure we don't lose this moment,” Ben Crump, an attorney representing the families of Floyd and other Black victims of police shootings, said in an interview Thursday.
“Time right now is an enemy of a deal,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union.
The slow fadeout from top-tier concern to background noise illustrates how contentious issues sometimes die in Washington — not with clamorous showdown votes but a gradual realization that hey, people simply aren't talking about this any more.
Former President Donald Trump's frequent promises for highway and other infrastructure projects and former President Barack Obama's efforts to close the U.S. military prison for detained terrorism suspects at Guantanamo in Cuba both just ebbed away.
The Senate's policing talks are aimed at writing compromise legislation curbing law enforcement agencies' use of force and making them more accountable for abuses.
For months, bargainers have been stymied over Democrats' demands to make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties. It's currently difficult to pursue such actions in all but the most egregious cases. Republicans and law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police have resisted easing those limitations.
Negotiators are also divided over whether to ease the standards for bringing criminal cases against officers for excessive use of force.
“I had hoped that we’d be done by now, but we are still trading paper and making incremental progress,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the chief Republican negotiator, told reporters this week.
Scott, who in May set a “June or bust” goal that never materialized, declined to say whether an agreement would be reached this year. He said ongoing violence like this month's slaying of a Chicago police officer “has made this a more important process, in my opinion, and a longer process.”
Scott's Democratic counterpart, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, would say little.
“I'm just putting my head down and getting the work done as quickly as we can,” he told reporters recently.
As the Senate began a brief break in June, bargainers announced they'd reached a bipartisan “framework” for an agreement. They provided no detail and never produced evidence that their outline, whatever it was, was meaningful.
The Democratic-controlled House approved a sweeping measure in March that’s stalled in the evenly divided Senate. Last year, Democrats derailed a Senate GOP bill they said was too timid.
Police in the U.S. fatally shoot nearly 1,000 people annually, including a disproportionately high number of Black people, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. Some slayings like Floyd’s have sparked nationwide protests, even as many communities have revamped police procedures.
The issue played prominently in congressional campaigns last fall, with Democrats appealing to voters who want restraints on police practices while Republicans focused on fear of rising crime.
Booker was involved in a brief Senate flareup this week that illustrated the issue's ample political potency.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., offered an amendment to budget legislation suggesting cuts in federal aid to municipalities that vote to “defund the police,” a loosely defined term from which all but the most progressive Democrats have distanced themselves. Hoping some Democrats would vote against his measure, Tuberville said opponents would be turning their backs on “the men and women in blue.”
But the measure passed 99-0 after Booker delivered an impassioned, sarcastic speech saying he wanted to “hug my colleague” for giving Democrats a vote showing they opposed police defunding.
Both parties have voiced suspicions that their opponents are less interested in reaching a policing deal than they are in preserving the issue for next year's political campaigns.
The talks have been complicated by some outside groups refusing to give ground on key issues. That's led some organizations like the bipartisan Justice Action Network, which backs criminal justice reforms, to push for an initial, less ambitious deal addressing areas of agreement, like some increased police reporting of data on use of force.
“The longer this drags on, the more concerned we are getting,” said Inimai Chettiar, the network's federal affairs director.
To intensify pressure on bargainers, Crump said advocates should heed the example of progressive Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. Her all-night vigils outside the Capitol helped pressure Biden recently to temporarily extend a federal moratorium against evicting renters during the pandemic.
“You do any and everything possible to make them pay attention,” said Crump.
Asked if Biden should be more engaged to prompt a deal, Crump said, “Hopefully, all of us can do more.”
Tezlyn Figaro, senior adviser to the George Floyd Foundation, founded by the Floyd family, cited Democrats' control of the White House and Congress and expressed disappointment with bargainers' failure to meet Biden's May 25 deadline for action.
“It hasn't been done,” she said. “Definitely not encouraging.”