Column: Congress had a chance for bipartisan police reform. Both parties failed

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), right, speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and others listen at Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), right, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and others at a Capitol Hill news conference to announce a Republican police reform bill on June 17.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

After Americans reacted in outrage to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Republicans and Democrats in Congress promised quick action on police reform.

Leaders on both sides offered a long list of ideas: a ban on chokeholds, an end to “no-knock” searches, and more.

Then, last week, the Senate deadlocked on the issue almost as quickly as it had vowed to act.


In 2016, Trump held the support of a key group — white women without college degrees. This spring, they’ve turned against him.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a GOP bill with relatively mild measures that had been approved by the White House. Democrats pronounced the Republican bill so weak that it was “unsalvageable” and blocked it. Senate Republicans in turn refused to take up a House bill passed by Democrats.

Each side denounced the other, and a once-bipartisan goal suddenly appeared unreachable.

It was only one legislative failure among many; Congress’ reputation for gridlock has been richly earned.

But this one was a special tragedy. Most of the public, reacting to the gruesome video of Floyd’s death, wanted some kind of legislation. Republicans and Democrats who spoke to each other — a minority on Capitol Hill — said they believed compromise was possible.

What went wrong? Both sides behaved badly. Each surrendered to internal political pressures.

That wasn’t surprising, especially in an election year, but it was still disappointing. This bill could have been an exception to the rule.

I called Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, to find out why the bipartisan push failed. King had voted with Republicans to allow McConnell’s bill to move forward.

He said he thought it was a mistake for Democrats to block the bill.

“I think there was space for a compromise, and now I’m afraid we’re not going to get anything,” he told me. “My concern was that if Democrats refused to go forward, McConnell would say, ‘OK, I tried,’ and move on — and that’s pretty much what happened.”

But King also faulted the Republican leader for refusing to let Democrats participate in drafting the bill.

“The only way to get things done in the Senate is with a bipartisan process,” he said. “This was a bill on a very complex topic drafted by one party.”

Even as McConnell cut the Democrats out, he submitted his bill to the White House to make sure President Trump wouldn’t denounce it.

That’s a normal part of legislating — but in the process, some measures were watered down.

Initially, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the bill’s main author, said he wanted to ban or limit no-knock searches, which have led to fatal police shootings of innocent people. When the proposal emerged, it merely called on the Justice Department to collect data about no-knock warrants.

The result was a bill that had broad support among Senate Republicans but fell far short of what Democrats had promised their supporters.

“There is overwhelming opposition to the bill in our caucus,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. The desire for party unity on each side meant the ground for compromise kept shrinking.

McConnell said he would allow Democrats to try to amend the bill, but Schumer said that offer fell short of a guarantee.

“There’s a fundamental lack of trust between the two sides,” King told me.

In the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic majority can pass bills without Republican help, a mirror-image process occurred: A Democratic bill passed with almost no GOP participation.

It included bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limits on police officers’ immunity from lawsuits and a publicly available database of police officers with disciplinary records.

On all those issues, King argued, compromises might have been possible.

A bipartisan majority could agree to ban chokeholds except when a police officer’s life is in danger, strict restrictions on no-knock searches, and even perhaps stripping police officers’ immunity to lawsuits if they violate their departments’ policies (although police unions have long resisted any change).

There was plenty of blame to go around.

Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed at the Republican leader.

“The way McConnell set up the process almost guaranteed this outcome,” he said. “If he had wanted bipartisan legislation, he could have gotten it either by turning the issue over to the Judiciary Committee [which includes members of both parties] or by forming a bipartisan group. He did neither.”

Frances E. Lee, a political scientist at Princeton University, said the Democrats were responsible, too.

“It’s clear that Democrats believe that they would be better off preserving the issue for the election,” she wrote in an email. “A negotiated outcome would force Democrats to accept far less than what they want … [and] muddle the clarity of the party’s election message.”

There are two morals to this story — one all too familiar, the other less so.

The first is that in a polarized and closely divided Congress, bipartisan deals are almost impossible, especially in an election year.

But the countervailing message is also striking: On some issues, if the public demands action, both parties will try to respond.

That was true when Congress passed a series of bills to counter the economic shock of the coronavirus lockdowns. And it was true in Congress’ initial reaction to the death of George Floyd.

Like King, I think it would have been better if Senate Democrats had allowed McConnell’s bill to move ahead, and tested his promise that they could amend it on the floor.

They chose otherwise. Now McConnell can either walk away from the issue — or he can try again, with a bigger dose of bipartisanship. But only one force can compel the Senate leader and his colleagues to move: loud, sustained pressure from the public.