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Police reform sees momentum ahead of George Floyd anniversary

The Hill logo The Hill 5/24/2021 Alex Gangitano and Brett Samuels
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: Police reform sees momentum ahead of George Floyd anniversary © Getty Images Police reform sees momentum ahead of George Floyd anniversary

Renewed momentum around the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as the anniversary of George Floyd's murder on Tuesday approached has led to some optimism from those around the process that a bipartisan bill is within reach, a rare achievement in a divided Washington.

President Biden called on Congress to pass the bill by May 25 during his first address to Congress last month. But lawmakers spearheading the legislation have since said it won't be ready.

The White House has announced its intention to give lawmakers space to work, even as it said it would prioritize the legislation over a policing reform commission and proceeded to set a difficult deadline for Congress to meet.

The administration is under pressure to get something done given its deliberate focus on addressing racial inequality.

"Obviously, we are in close touch, and we certainly defer to the expectations of the key negotiators here. And I would note that Senator Booker has indicated that there's good energy to the talks. Senator Scott has said that 'The key for us ... is to keep making progress.' And we certainly support those efforts," White House Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday.

"The President talked about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in his joint session speech, put a marker down because he feels it's important to be bold, to be ambitious. And that's exactly what he feels we're hopefully working toward," she added.

Psaki also told reporters the White House has been "in close touch" with lawmakers, though Biden officials have hardly been visible as talks play out.

"We are not going to slow our efforts to get this done but we can also be transparent about the fact that it's going to take a little bit more time. Sometimes that happens, and that's OK," Psaki said Friday. When asked if the president wants a bill done this summer, Psaki said he wants to sign it "as quickly as possible."

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) was the chief architect of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House and has been working with Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on a bipartisan version of it to pass the Senate.

The comprehensive legislation being negotiated seeks to reform key policing practices: racial profiling at every level of law enforcement would be prohibited; chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants would be banned at the federal level; qualified immunity for officers would be overhauled; and a national police misconduct registry would be created so that officers who are fired for such violations could not be hired unknowingly by another police department.


Video: Where police reform stands a year after George Floyd's death (CBS News)

Where police reform stands a year after George Floyd's death
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The House-passed bill would not mandate the prohibition of chokeholds at the state and local level, but would set the new federal standards as thresholds for police departments to meet if they want to continue receiving federal aid.

Bass said last week that the bill won't be ready for a vote by the proposed May 25 deadline, timing that her office also confirmed.

The congresswoman, Booker and Scott met three times in person last week and one of the meetings included other House members like the chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).

"The congresswoman remains cautiously optimistic that we can get a substantive bill signed into law," a spokesperson for Bass said.

When asked about timing, Booker said, "I'm just trying to get this bill done right."

"Policing reform legislation must hold police accountable for egregious misconduct, increase transparency, and reform police practices to prevent police violence from occurring in the first place. I'm encouraged by the conversations I'm having with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle because it's clear they understand this and am hopeful we can find a path forward on meaningful policing reform soon," the senator told The Hill.

A Scott aide also told The Hill, "we're cautiously optimistic. They've made good progress but of course, nothing is agreed to until it's all agreed to."

Last year, a Scott-led police reform measure collapsed in the Senate when Democrats blocked it, arguing it didn't go far enough. His bill received votes from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), but fell short of the 60 votes needed to avoid the legislative filibuster in the then-GOP controlled Senate.

The top negotiators are now working towards a filibuster-proof bill to avoid a similar situation.

Booker, Scott and Bass still meeting in person after months of negotiating is a nod toward old-school legislating involving principals from both sides of the aisle coming to the table to get a bipartisan deal, and reflects the kind of process many Washington insiders hoped to see return with Biden's election.

The president has taken a hands-on approach to other aspects of his agenda, specifically his infrastructure proposal. He has met in person with several lawmakers in both parties at the White House as the administration assesses what a deal might look like.

By contrast, former Biden advisers said the president has intentionally chosen to give lawmakers room to breathe and work out a policing deal on their own, as it's a more complex and potentially divisive issue. But that approach has led to questions among some Democrats about why the White House felt the need to impose a deadline on negotiators.

While the White House handed policing reform legislation off to the three top negotiators and has largely stayed out of discussions, so have Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to sources familiar.

The three lawmakers also appear to be on the same page that the May 25 deadline was solely White House imposed and are comfortable with the extra time it will take to get a bill that can get votes from both Democrats and Republicans.

Despite the lawmakers missing their deadline, Biden will mark the anniversary of Floyd's death by hosting his family at the White House on Tuesday.

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