Biden Looks to GOP’s Lone Black Senator to Shepherd Police Law

The ability of President Joe Biden and Congress to rein in police brutality depends increasingly on Tim Scott -- the sole Black Republican in the Senate and linchpin to any bipartisan compromise to address the repeated abuses nationwide.

Ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction on Tuesday for the murder of George Floyd gave the issue new momentum after GOP-drafted legislation collapsed in the Senate last summer. But Scott, who is working with Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass on the legislation, faces an uphill battle in trying to rally support -- particularly in his own party -- on one of the most divisive issues facing the nation.

Nevertheless, Biden -- who faces pressure from civil rights advocates and Black Americans who were key to his electoral win -- wants Congress to act fast and has dispatched several senior aides from his public engagement, domestic policy and legislative affairs offices to lobby Capitol Hill. Following Chauvin’s conviction on Tuesday, Biden seized on the moment to make his own plea that lawmakers approve the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban the use of chokeholds and so-called no-knock home entry.

Scott signaled Wednesday that a bipartisan bill could be ready as early as this month.

“I think we are on the verge of wrapping this up in the next week or two, depending on how quickly they respond to our suggestions,” said Scott, referring to Booker and Bass, the chief sponsor of the House legislation.

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The debate over police violence has thrust two Black members of the Senate into the spotlight. Scott had already seen his profile rise last year when he led a Senate GOP efforts on the issue, at one point telling fellow lawmakers that he had recently been stopped by police for “driving while Black.” New Jersey’s Booker, one of only two Black Democrats in the Senate and who ran for his party’s presidential nomination last year, has already gained attention for his work on overhauling U.S. sentencing laws. Bass, who is also Black, has led efforts in the House on policing.

Biden Looks to GOP’s Lone Black Senator to Shepherd Police Law

The lawmakers are discussing whether to curtail police officers’ “qualified immunity” from legal liability -- possibly the most controversial element of any legislation, Scott said. Republicans in both chambers are opposed to ending the immunity provision. Scott said both Bass and Booker have signaled they’re willing to consider an alternative, such as allowing victims and their families to sue police departments -- rather than individual officers -- over excessive force.

Booker and Bass declined to go into any details about the discussions about the issue.

“There’s a lot of room around qualified immunity,” Bass said. “Qualified immunity must be addressed. We have to figure out ways to hold police officers accountable.”

Whether to end no-knock search warrants or adopt a federal ban on chokeholds is also still being debated, Scott added.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said early Wednesday that he’s determined to push legislation through the chamber this year, adding to a busy social policy agenda that also includes voting rights legislation and new gun controls.

“We will not rest until the Senate passes strong legislation to end the systemic bias in law enforcement,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Bass said she is optimistic that a compromise would emerge by May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death.

The Democrat-led House in early March approved a policing reform bill on a 220-212 vote. That bill would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, prohibit racial and religious profiling and establish a national standard for police department operations.

In the Senate, however, there hasn’t been any action since last June, when Democrats blocked an alternative proposal by Scott from reaching the floor. Scott’s bill called for de-escalation training for local police officers, increased use of body cameras, and would have made lynching a federal crime. It also would have cut 25% of federal funds to police departments that failed to provide detailed information to the Justice Department about incidents of excessive force and no-knock search warrants. But it didn’t address the liability issue or no-knock warrants.

Biden, meanwhile, is trying to keep the pressure on lawmakers. On Tuesday, cameras recorded the Floyd family huddled around a smart phone as they spoke to the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden. He told them he was relieved by the conviction, and hoped that the verdict would lead to broader change.

“We’re going to do a lot. We’re going to stay at it until we get it done,” Biden said. He promised to fly the family on Air Force One for the signing of the legislation.

By publicly holding a conversation with Floyds family and immediately speaking after the verdict, Biden used his platform to garner voter support for police reform and place pressure on Congress to act, said Vanessa Beasley, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential rhetoric.

Biden has issued executive orders on police abuses, but the Floyd legislation would provide the basis for more lasting change.

“George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago. There is meaningful police reform legislation in his name,” Biden said Tuesday. “Legislation to tackle systemic misconduct in police departments, to restore trust between law enforcement and the people they’re entrusted to serve and protect. But it shouldn’t take a whole year to get this done.”

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