Buoyed by Floyd Verdict, Congress Eyes New Bid to Overhaul Policing

WASHINGTON — A day after a white Minneapolis police officer was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, a Black man, lawmakers in both parties said they were cautiously optimistic that the verdict could provide new momentum in Congress to overcome the hurdles that have thwarted a far-reaching police overhaul.

In a speech on Tuesday night at the White House, President Biden formally called on lawmakers to resurrect the bill known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Democrats’ expansive measure to address the use of excessive force and racial discrimination, pledging to sign it into law “as quickly as possible.” The bill, co-written by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, has languished for almost a year amid partisan differences.

“We’re going to stay at it until we get it done,” the president assured Mr. Floyd’s family in call after the verdict.

On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers in both parties said on Wednesday that the conviction may have opened a rare window of opportunity to break the stalemate. In the clearest sign of progress, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Republicans’ lead emissary on the issue, said that a bipartisan group of lawmakers was “on the verge” of a compromise in the coming weeks, although the details were murky.

“I am interested in making a difference. I do not care about making a point,” Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California and the lead author of her party’s legislation, said in an interview, signaling flexibility on a potential deal. “I can make a point and stand on a high horse, but that doesn’t get me anywhere.”

But to do so, the two parties would have to resolve the same stubborn ideological and political differences that blunted past efforts.

Democrats have pressed for aggressive federal intervention to curb abuses in policing. But they have stopped short of trying to defund police departments, as some of the most progressive lawmakers have advocated.

Republicans have pushed back on such prescriptive measures, saying the federal government should not mandate how the police do their jobs, only offer incentives and training. And they have worked to portray Democrats as anti-law-enforcement extremists, a potent line of attack during last year’s elections.

Ms. Bass and Mr. Scott, who have been in quiet talks for weeks to find a compromise, have yet to win the backing of party leaders on a roster of divisive issues. The chief sticking point continues to be Democrats’ demand to alter the legal liability shield for individual police officers, known as qualified immunity, to make it easier to bring civil lawsuits against them for wrongdoing. The two sides are also at odds over a proposal to change the federal code to make criminal prosecution of individual officers easier.

Hopes that lawmakers would respond to the national outcry for reform initially fell apart last summer after Senate Republicans refused to take up the George Floyd measure and Democrats blocked their attempt to pass more modest legislation led by Mr. Scott. His package would have encouraged state and local police departments to change their practices, including penalizing those that did not require the use of body cameras and limiting the use of chokeholds. It would not have altered the qualified immunity doctrine or placed new federal restrictions on the use of lethal force.

In addition to curtailing qualified immunity and easing prosecution of misconduct, Democrats’ bill would directly mandate more changes to departments, including restrictions on the use of deadly force except as a last resort. The House passed it last month almost entirely along party lines.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told reporters on Tuesday that Republicans were “still open to looking at police reform” but that their ideas “ought not to be just summarily dismissed in the process.” He hammered Democrats for using the filibuster last year to block Mr. Scott’s bill.

But amid the public sparring, Ms. Bass, Mr. Scott and a smattering of other interested lawmakers have been working quietly to bridge the divide. They include members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus — led by one of the group’s chairmen, Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Pete Stauber, Republican of Minnesota and a retired police lieutenant.

Lawmakers involved in the talks are said to be studying a law passed last year by Colorado that limited the ability of police officers to use qualified immunity as a defense against liability in state courts. Police unions and their allies fiercely oppose such change, and used the issue to drive a stake through Democrats’ bill last summer.

Mr. Scott signaled on Wednesday that he was working on a potential compromise that would make it easier for victims or their families to sue police departments, but not individual officers. Many jurisdictions already allow such lawsuits, and the details of his proposal were not immediately clear, but Mr. Scott said that Democrats had been “quite receptive.”

“There is a way to put more of the onus or the burden on the department or on the employer than on the employee,” he told reporters. “I think that would be a very logical step forward.”

Mr. Scott said he would still not consider any changes that would make it easier to criminally prosecute officers, as Democrats have insisted.

At the White House, Mr. Biden has deployed senior members of his team to prod along a compromise. Susan Rice, his domestic policy adviser; Cedric L. Richmond, his chief of public outreach; and Louisa Terrell, his legislative affairs director, have spoken with lawmakers about the bill in recent days, according to a senior official.

Democrats, in particular, have new reasons for optimism. Unlike a year ago, they can now count on a president of their own party who has made addressing systemic racism a priority of his administration. In Ms. Harris, they have an enthusiastic proponent of the legislation who is now in a position to play a crucial role. They also now have control of the Senate, allowing them to set the agenda for what bills come up for a vote and when.

Mr. Scott is in a trickier spot. The lone Black Republican in the Senate, he has spoken eloquently about his own experiences with police profiling, and he leaped at the opportunity last year to draft his party’s response to the wave of unrest.

But Mr. Scott is now facing re-election in a conservative Southern state where he could be targeted in a primary from the right. Taking a prominent role in pushing legislation backed by Democrats to rein in police wrongdoing could carry heavy political risks for him.

Republicans have continued the barrage of attacks painting Democrats as anti-police, and they could be unwilling to cut any deals that would dilute their attempts to press the theme in the 2022 midterm elections.

Beyond the political considerations, a vast gap remains between how the two parties regard the issues of race and policing. Democrats have argued that the recent deaths of Black people in confrontations with the police have exposed a fundamentally racist justice system that must be addressed on a broad scale. While some Republicans have conceded that racism plays a role, most have instead said that the problem is individual wrongdoing by rogue police officers.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, criticized Mr. Biden on Tuesday night for suggesting that Mr. Floyd’s murder exposed “systemic racism” plaguing the nation.

“It was a verdict against one officer based on individual facts in one case,” Mr. Cornyn wrote on Twitter. “I accept the verdict. No need to slander law enforcement generally, and the vast majority of police officers that risk their lives to protect public safety.”

At the same time, any move to scale back the policing measure as part of a bipartisan deal could backfire in the House, where progressive lawmakers have already signaled that the Democratic bill is insufficient to address the issues at hand. With Democrats operating on the thinnest of margins, defections could prove fatal to an eventual compromise bill.

“This is not about cameras and retraining and choke holds,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said on Tuesday night. “This is about changing how we structure our society and the value of Black life. So yeah, there’s legislation in here that’s not bad, that’s important, that should be passed. But even a lot of that doesn’t hit the core.”

Katie Rogers contributed reporting.

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