Republican Sen. Tim Scott proposes a national database of police officer-involved shootings. Sen. Rand Paul wants to stop sending surplus U.S. military equipment to local law enforcement. And GOP Sen. Mitt Romney is trying to assemble a bipartisan package of bills in response to police violence.
While President Donald Trump took a firm “law and order” approach to demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, Republicans in Congress are quickly, if quietly, trying to craft legislation to change police practices and accountability following the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
GOP senators, who some political analysts say are at risk of losing the chamber in this fall's election, are now stepping gingerly into a topic many have long avoided as the “Black Lives Matter” movement gains support.
“I think we should all be optimistic right now," Scott, the only black GOP senator, told reporters at the Capitol. "We have no reason not to be.”
On Tuesday, The Hill reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he has tapped Scott, of South Carolina, to put together police reform legislation.
The burst of legislative activity in the Republican ranks is an abrupt turnaround after years of black deaths with law enforcement. It comes as Trump is assailing activists who want to “defund the police,” and Democrats, powered by the Congressional Black Caucus, unveiled the most sweeping police overhaul in years, with House passage expected but the bill's fate in the Senate unclear.
Lawmakers are watching as demonstrations erupt in all corners of the country, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, and acknowledging the arrival of a mass movement for law enforcement changes as politically impossible to ignore.
Notably, McConnell, whose state, Kentucky, faces unrest following the death of Breonna Taylor after police entered her Louisville home, tried to strike a different tone for the party.
McConnell said the country is still "wrestling with America’s original sin,” a reference to slavery.
The GOP leader, who is also running for reelection alongside Trump, acknowledged the Republican majority — in stark contrast to Democrats in Congress — is almost all white.
“None of us have had the experience of being an African American in this country and dealing with this discrimination, which persists here some 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights bill,” McConnell said.
“The best way for Senate Republicans to go forward on this is to listen to one of our own, whose had these experiences,” he said in tapping Scott to speak for the GOP senators. “With his guidance and leadership we're going to come together with a proposal that we think makes the most sense.”
Wary Democrats, whose African American, Latino, Asian and other members fill the House majority, warn that the flurry of legislative activity could go the way of gun violence legislation in the aftermath of mass shootings — a quick response with no tangible outcome.
“I’m worried the same thing would happen here," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
With the House set to pass its package by month's end, Schumer pressed McConnell for Senate action before the July 4 holiday recess.
Yet leading Republicans are signaling a willingness to consider a more streamlined set of proposals, including some from the House package.
Several key Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are backing Scott's proposal, the Walter Scott Notification Act, first introduced in 2015 named for the black man shot and killed after fleeing police in South Carolina who pulled him over for a faulty brake light. It also has support from Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for reelection this fall in Iowa, and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
The Democrats also include the creation of a sweeping database of use of force incidents as a way to provide public transparency, so police officers cannot easily transfer from one department to another without awareness of their past actions.
“Obviously this is a national awakening,” GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said Tuesday on CNBC. She also suggested taking a look at creating a police registry.
“I think we can look at national police registries in terms of what are the past violations a police officer had to make sure that different states are aware where you might be getting a bad apple — I think that’s an issue,” she said. “We are going to definitely come forward with a package — you saw the Democrats come forward yesterday with one. This is something we can work on together..”
Similarly, a version of Paul's proposal to end the transfer of military gear to local jurisdictions is also part of the House bill, which could provide an area for compromise.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced a hearing next Tuesday on police practices and accountability.
Other lawmakers have proposals, too, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who suggests, with Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, creating a “National Criminal Justice Commission," much like the 9/11 Commission in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks, to broadly review policing and sentencing issues.
The Democrats' proposal is much more sweeping of an overhaul of policing. Along with the national database, it would ban racial profiling, choke holds and other procedures and make it easier for those injured by law enforcement to directly sue police officers by ending so-called “qualified immunity.” ___
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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