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Face of GOP’s ‘future’ steps up police reform talks with Dems

Less than 24 hours after Sen. Tim Scott delivered a prime-time partisan broadside against President Joe Biden, he went back to trying to cut a deal with Biden’s party.

Scott is leading negotiations on a bill tackling police bias and brutality with Democrats who last year sandbagged his own, smaller-scale proposal. And many Democrats have even less patience for compromise with the South Carolina GOP senator this time around: As police killings of Black people continue, they’re eager to make good on campaign-trail promises on racial justice.

Lawmakers in both parties say they believe Scott is sincere in his efforts to craft a bipartisan accord as the nation nears next month’s one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd — which Biden cited Wednesday night in his first address to Congress as his preferred deadline for legislative action. The path to an agreement is narrow but congressional negotiators insist that one exists, even as they acknowledge they’re still facing many of the same obstacles that doomed the last major effort.

“It’s been a promising week,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), part of the small group of members who held their first official bipartisan meeting Thursday. Booker said he’s in communication with the White House on the issue as well.

One major shift in those policing talks, particularly from the GOP perspective, is Scott’s higher national profile. Republicans widely praised his rebuttal of Biden’s speech, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dubbing Scott “the future” of the party on Thursday. And the Senate’s only Black Republican seemed open to the challenge of reaching consensus with a Democratic Party that doesn’t quite align with his views of systemic racism in America.

Emerging from Thursday’s nearly hour-long sit-down, Scott said “nothing happened in the meeting that deterred me from being optimistic.”

Progress toward a deal appeared slow but noticeably ahead of where lawmakers were last year. Beyond Booker and Scott, participants included Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Thursday was the first time that all of Congress’ lead players on the issue were in the same room together.

A source in a separate series of back-to-back Thursday meetings with the families of Black men killed by police that included Scott, Graham and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said “we’re moving towards a reasonable solution” on a proposal that would allow victims of police violence to sue departments rather than officers.

Still, Republicans say they haven’t forgotten how Democrats filibustered Scott’s policing bill just weeks after Floyd’s death. Many in the GOP are skeptical, despite Scott’s good-faith involvement, that a deal can be reached within a few weeks, let alone months.

“It’s like a lot of things around here. Some people want the issues, some people want a solution and unfortunately so far it seems like our Democratic friends just prefer the issue to a solution,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). He accused Democrats of blocking Scott’s bill last year to avoid handing the GOP a win ahead of the election.

“But having said that,” Cornyn added, “we’re more than happy to engage.”

Congress’s push to overhaul policing got fresh momentum last week after a Minneapolis jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder. Lawmakers said the verdict strengthened their resolve to reach a deal despite nearly a year of dissension.

But while Biden used his first speech to Congress to urge passage of a policing bill by late May, Scott used his GOP rebuttal to highlight what he views as a Democratic derailment of his plan — a reminder of the cross-aisle tensions that still exist on the fraught issue.

“I extended an olive branch. I offered amendments. But Democrats used the filibuster to block the debate from even happening,” Scott said in his speech, which quickly fueled talk of a 2024 presidential run.

Asked about Biden’s timeline on Thursday, Scott wouldn’t commit to the specific date: “I didn’t set the May 25 deadline. I think the best thing we can do is keep in mind what we’re doing.”

Democratic leaders have also not set a formal deadline. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that a “good, strong bipartisan bill” will come to the floor “when we are ready.”

The bipartisan effort to shape legislation deterring police violence largely faded last year after Democrats blocked Scott’s bill in the Senate and the broader talks collapsed.

However, a smaller group, including Bass, Scott and some members of the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, continued to talk through the 2020 election. Bass and Scott are now set to try again, this time with Biden in charge.

They’re finding that many of the same policy issues which tripped up talks last spring remain high hurdles. Democrats still say Scott’s bill last year was largely toothless, and that his proposal for federal incentives rather than strict new rules wouldn’t do enough to change the culture of police departments across the country.

Republicans, on the other hand, oppose provisions that would lower the legal barriers to suing or prosecuting police officers — a major demand of civil rights advocates.

Following Thursday’s meeting, Scott reiterated he opposed lowering the bar for prosecuting police officers by changing federal laws on police misconduct. Graham agreed that resolving the cross-aisle differences on that front was “gonna be a challenge.”

Durbin said lawmakers had a “positive spirit” in the room but still were confronting a number of divisive questions. That includes restrictions on transfers of military hardware to law enforcement, federal restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Another roadblock involves the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which shields police from lawsuits by victims or their families for alleged civil rights violations.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has floated a compromise that resembles Scott’s proposal to place financial liability for civil rights infringement on police departments, rather than officers. Whitehouse said Thursday it would protect “police officers from personal liability — the ‘one bad night concern’ — that so many of our colleagues have expressed.”

Asked about Whitehouse’s proposal, Graham lauded it and said it “takes a lot of pressure off cops.” But negotiators haven’t shared specific language on it, clouding how much it would change current law.

It is also unclear if such a qualified immunity compromise would pass muster with civil rights activists who want to hold individual officers liable, decrying the rarity of disciplinary action or successful lawsuits against officers.

The meetings between lawmakers and the relatives of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, and Terence Crutcher came a day after Biden’s call on Congress to pass police reform within weeks.

During his campaign, Biden expressed support for the House-passed policing bill named after Floyd but did not back ending qualified immunity. Instead Biden called for reining in the judicial doctrine and promised to consult police unions on any legislation. A source familiar with White House talks described an openness to alternative options for holding officers accountable.

“The administration has been engaged respectfully on the Hill concerning this issue, and hopes to see a strong police reform bill emerge from the Senate,” a White House official told POLITICO this week, adding that it “welcomes” Sen. Scott’s efforts.

Civil rights leaders and families of those killed by police have kept the pressure on the White House and Congress. Leaving meetings with lawmakers on Thursday, they were hopeful for a compromise.

The families also met Thursday with Susan Rice, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council; Cedric Richmond, director of the Office of Public Engagement; and White House Counsel Dana Remus.

“We want accountability from the officers on both the criminal and civil side but we do recognize that there’s going to be a sweet spot,” said attorney Bakari Sellers, who knows Scott from their shared service as South Carolina legislators. “I think that we can find that, but these families want to make sure that it’s meaningful.”

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents several families of Black men killed by police, said the legislation under consideration “will literally have the blood stain of their loved ones.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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