WASHINGTON — Attempts to reach a bipartisan compromise over a National Police overhaul are on the brink of Congressional collapse as years of negotiations threaten to fail under the weight of fraught ideological differences and a fast-closing window for action.
After a jury in Minneapolis found the white police officer who killed George Floyd guilty of murder in April, lawmakers on both sides were cautiously optimistic that the verdict would provide new impetus to break the deadlock that has left negotiators since the death of the president. had abandoned Mr Floyd. President Biden also expressed his support and called on Congress to act against the first anniversary of the assassination in late May.
But that deadline has come and gone, and weeks after the verdict, negotiators still disagree on the same set of divisive issues, notably whether criminal and civil penalties should be changed to make it easier to punish police officers for misconduct. Now lawmakers working to break the stalemate and police lobby groups involved in discussions on a new proposal are bickering, and there is no clear path to bridge their divides before a self-imposed deadline in late June.
"We still have a lot of work to do," said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, Republicans' chief envoy on the issue, who had adopted a more optimistic tone last week. "The devil is in the details, and we meet the devil now."
Scott and his Democratic colleagues — New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Representative Karen Bass — had hoped to stitch the final details of a rare bipartisan agreement. The two sides repeatedly expressed their optimism that they could merge competing proposals submitted last summer into a single bill to improve police training, create a national database to track police misconduct and provide information for victims of crimes. make misconduct easier to sue agents or their departments.
Instead, Democrats and Republicans on Thursday found themselves swapping veiled barbs over a written proposal circulated this week by Mr. Booker that has only driven the two parties further apart and pitted powerful law enforcement groups against each other.
Democrats told their Republican counterparts that at least one such group, the Fraternal Order of Police, had backed the key provisions of the document, according to congressional officials familiar with the talks. The New York Times got a copy of the text.
The proposed measure would lower the barrier for the federal government to prosecute officials who have committed flagrant misconduct and violate a person's constitutional rights. It would also change the legal doctrine known as: qualified immunity to make it easier for victims or their families to sue police and municipalities, but not individual officers.
But instead of delivering a major breakthrough, Mr. Booker's idea seemed to backfire. Republicans accused him of acting alone in an attempt to bend key police interests in favor of an overly liberal law. The More Conservative National Sheriffs' Association destroyed its contents and began to lobby hard against it on Capitol Hill, and the Fraternal Order of Police quickly fired back.
"There's no road in hell that goes anywhere," South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. "The conversations we had about the police reform were completely different from the document that was produced."
Mr. Graham argued that the proposed changes to the penal code would allow "the most liberal federal prosecutors" to ruin the lives of individual police officers who caused minor injuries, such as cuts and scrapes — a claim one Democratic aide considers an exaggeration. declined. Republicans were more in favor of making it easier for victims to sue wards and cities, but also disagreed with how Mr. Booker had structured that change.
“If a union believes this is a good deal for the police, I would want my dues back if I were a cop,” said Mr Graham, referring to the Fraternal Order of Police.
Jonathan Thompson, the Sheriffs' Executive Director group, said its members had "serious concerns" about the design, "but remain open to the possibility that something balanced and reasonable is feasible."
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the F.O.P., unequivocally denied that the organization had weakened its standards for protecting officials and said the group would not support legislation that did.
"We would never sell our members for any reason," he said in an interview.
In a knock on the National Sheriffs' Association added Mr. Pasco that the group is "often upset and it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact reason for it."
The public wave of discontent underscored the delicate balancing act needed to move forward. While the death of Mr. Floyd and the national protest movement it inspired dramatically changed public opinion about race and policing last summer, Republicans have also relied heavily on political attacks that portray Democrats as the enemies of law enforcement, and themselves as are protectors.
Democrats desperately want a deal but believe that an end product that doesn't make it easier to hold officers accountable for wrongdoing would not adequately respond to the racism they believe is rampaging through American police.
Thursday's pessimism also broke the cheerful tone that has surrounded the talks for months. With lawmakers willing to disclose only the tiniest details of their talks, media reports have often exaggerated the magnitude of their progress, adding an extra layer of difficulty to getting a deal. Mr Scott, Mr Booker and Mrs Bass may not have helped. In an effort to create a sense of momentum, they have repeatedly told reporters that they expect a breakthrough in a few days, or a week, or imminent. Every deadline has passed without a deal.
"We are days, but that could be 30 days or 25 days – who knows?" Mr Booker said Thursday, when urged by reporters to account for conflicting assessments about when the group might reach a conclusion – if it can. "There is a lot of work to be done in a very short time."
Graham and other Republicans close to the talks insisted there was still reason for optimism. Mr. Booker, Mr. Scott and others involved in the discussions will meet with key law enforcement groups next week.
“There will be different versions of it,” said Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford. “We are still going to solve it. I'm not worried about it."
However, the current deadline, at the end of June, seems like a solid breaking point. If the negotiators can't reach an agreement by then, they probably wouldn't have enough time to gauge support among their parties in general and bring it up for a lengthy debate and vote before Congress leaves town for a summer recess. of six weeks. Once lawmakers return, both sides agree that the specter of medium-term campaigns is likely to overwhelm any bipartisan goodwill on such a politically charged issue.
“There is momentum for a deal,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network. “Actually, I would even call it desperation for a deal. But great challenges lie ahead. I would urge those who are working on this and really want a deal and want to change laws and lives not to increase those obstacles.”
Police reform negotiations first diverged last summer after Senate Republicans refused to pass Democrats' sizable bill, named after Mr. Floyd, that would have curtailed qualified immunity, prosecuting would have facilitated misconduct and direct mandates to police forces, including restrictions on lethal use of force. Democrats, for their part, blocked a Republican-led effort to pass more modest legislation led by Mr. Scott that encouraged departments to change their practices and imposed penalties for departments that did not restrict the use of chokeholds or the use of body cameras. ;s requirements.