WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday passed the most ambitious effort in decades to overhaul policing nationwide, able to avoid clashing with most moderates in their party while losing two including U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was approved 219-213 late Wednesday. The sweeping legislation, which was first approved last summer but stalled in the Senate, was named in honor of Floyd, whose killing by police in Minnesota last Memorial Day sparked protests nationwide. Floyd’s family watched the debate from a nearby office building.
The bill would ban chokeholds and “qualified immunity” for law enforcement and create national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability. The debate over legislation has turned into a political liability for Democrats as Republicans seized on calls by some activists and progressives to “defund the police” to argue that Democrats were intent on slashing police force budgets. This bill doesn’t do that.
“Black Americans have endured generations of systemic racism and discrimination for too long, and this has been painfully evident in their treatment by law enforcement,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said it was a reason the party, after talking confidently of growing its majority in November, instead saw it shrink to just 10 seats. Moderate Democrats said the charge helped drive Democratic defeats in swing districts around the country.
Golden, whose district was won by former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, backed an earlier version of the reform bill last year, weathered those attacks in his successful bid for a second term, even though he also co-sponsored a bill the same year to reduce federal funding to states and cities that slashed police budgets. He criticized progressives after the November election for relying on the “defund the police” slogan, saying it was an ineffective message.
The Maine congressman and Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin were the only House Democrats to oppose the bill on Wednesday. Golden said in a statement that his vote for the package last year reflected a desire to see bipartisan negotiations on the subject, despite “significant concerns about how the House bill eliminated qualified immunity protections for law enforcement officers.”
While he signaled openness to the courts of Congress construing immunity in a narrower way, Golden said he does not agree with scrapping it.
“Unfortunately, there have been no negotiations since the legislation’s first passage, and the bill before us retains those same problematic changes,” he said. “Because I understand what it is like to make split second, life-and-death decisions under pressure, and out of respect for the difficult decisions confronting law enforcement officers in the line of duty, I will not support this legislation today.”
While Democrats used their then-larger majority to pass the police reform measure in the House last summer, it stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, where GOP senators pushed an alternate plan that Democrats blocked from consideration, calling it inadequate. Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, but it seems unlikely the bill could pass the Senate without substantial changes to win GOP support.
The bill had been set for a vote Thursday, but House leaders abruptly changed the schedule to wrap up their week’s work after U.S. Capitol Police warned of threats of violence at the Capitol two months after the Jan. 6 siege.
Senior Democratic congressional aides said Wednesday they were eager to get the bill to the Senate, where negotiations will take longer. Republicans quickly revived the “defund the police” criticisms.
“Our law enforcement officers need more funding, not less,” Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., said during Wednesday’s debate.
The bill’s would prohibit so-called qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement from certain lawsuits and is one of the main provisions that will likely need to be negotiated in any compromise with the Senate. Police unions and other law enforcement groups have argued that, without such legal protections, fear of lawsuits will stop people from becoming police officers even though the measure permits such suits only against law enforcement agencies.
California Rep. Karen Bass, who authored the bill, called provisions limiting qualified immunity and easing standards for prosecution “the only measures that hold police accountable that will actually decrease the number of times we have to see people killed on videotape.”
She also acknowledged the challenges Democrats faced last November — and may likely see again — when Trump’s reelection campaign and other leading Republicans crowded the airwaves with images of cities around the country burning. But Bass said those attacks, like much of the opposition to the bill, are built on racism, promoting fears about how “the scary Black people are going to attack you if you try to rein in the police.”
“Even if they were to vote against the bill, even if they were to have a press conference denouncing the bill, they are still going to be hit with the same lie,” Bass said of Democrats.
But she conceded that changes are likely to come if the measure is to win the minimum 60 votes it will need to advance in the Senate, which is now split 50-50. Bass said she’d been in contact with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the chamber, and was confident he would help deliver some GOP support.
Scott said this week that the legislation’s sticking points were qualified immunity and prosecutorial standards, which he called “a red line” but expressed hope that the parties could “come up with something that actually works.”
That could prove a tall order, despite the White House’s vocal support for police reform. Biden has promised to combat systemic racism and signed executive orders he says will begin doing that, though advocates are expecting the new administration to go further.
Story by Will Weissert and Padmananda Rama. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.