House passes elections bill and police reform measure named for George Floyd
Washington — The House passed two progressive agenda items late Wednesday evening, moving forward with key legislative priorities even though the bills have an uncertain future in the Senate.
The House approved H.R. 1, a sweeping government and elections reform bill, by a vote of 220 to 210. It also approved the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by a vote of 220 to 212, with Democrats Jared Golden and Ron Kind joining all Republicans in voting against the bill. Republican Congressman Lance Gooden of Texas voted for the bill, but later tweeted that he did so by mistake.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is named after the Minnesota man who died in police custody last year after an officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, instigating a wave of protests against racial violence and police brutality over the summer. The legislation, spearheaded by Congresswoman Karen Bass, bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases and reforms qualified immunity, making it easier to pursue claims against police officers in civil court.
Other provisions in the House bill include incentivizing state attorneys general to investigate local police departments, and providing grants for states to create procedures for investigating police-involved deaths. The legislation attempts to improve transparency by creating a National Police Misconduct Registry, and mandate state and local law enforcement turn over data on use of force broken out by race, gender, disability, religion and age. The bill further aims to address cultural biases in police stations by mandating racial bias training, and would also change the standard for evaluating whether use of force was justified.
The bill initially passed in June 2020, with Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick and Fred Upton joining all Democrats in supporting the bill. Both Fitzpatrick and Upton voted against the bill on Wednesday night.
Floyd's family was at the Capitol on Wednesday evening for the debate and final vote on the bill. Floyd family attorneys Ben Crump, Antonio Romanucci and L. Chris Stewart said in a statement that the bill "represents a major step forward to reform the relationship between police officers and communities of color and impose accountability on law enforcement officers whose conscious decisions preserve the life or cause the death of Americans, including so many people of color."
"Now we urge the Senate to follow suit and send this important legislation to President Biden," the attorneys said.
A policing reform bill was proposed by Republican Senator Tim Scott in the Senate last year, but it was blocked by Democrats who argued that it did not go far enough. Although the two bills have many similarities, they differ in addressing qualified immunity protections for law enforcement officers. Republicans argue that overhauling qualified immunity would harm law enforcement officers acting in good faith, as it would make it easier to pursue litigation against them.
The Senate bill would require increased reporting of use of force and no-knock warrants, provide grants for law enforcement to be equipped with body cameras and require departments to maintain and share officer disciplinary records. Scott told reporters earlier this week that he had an initial conversation with Bass about their policing reform bills, and said on Thursday that he had spoken to Senator Cory Booker about a Senate bill last weekend.
"It just depends on their definition of bipartisan," Scott said, when asked if a compromise was possible.
Although the vote on the Justice in Policing Act was initially scheduled for Thursday, it was moved up due to a security threat. Two House sources confirmed to CBS News that there were discussions about moving up votes in the House because of the threat. The U.S. Capitol Police "received new and concerning information and intelligence indicating additional interest in the Capitol for the dates of March 4th – 6th by a militia group," the House Sergeant at Arms said in a bulletin on Wednesday.
Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday that "we do have some concerning intelligence" and "we have enhanced our security posture." The concerns for lawmakers' safety come after the Capitol was stormed by a mob seeking to overturn the presidential election on January 6, with several rioters seeking to harm or even assassinate lawmakers.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released an updated schedule showing the House would vote on the George Floyd measure Wednesday night instead of Thursday, enabling the House to wrap up its workweek a day early and to not be in session Thursday.
Similar to the Justice in Policing Act, the House had already passed an election reform bill during the last Congress after Democrats took back the majority, but neither was considered in the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats now have a narrow 50-seat majority in the Senate, but most legislation requires 60 votes to advance. The bills are unlikely to gain support from ten Republican senators, so their prospects of passing in the Senate are grim.
H.R. 1, known as the "For the People Act," would overhaul government ethics and campaign finance laws, and seek to strengthen voting rights by creating automatic voter registration and expanding access to early and absentee voting. The vote on the bill comes as Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country seek to restrict voting rights, including measures to limit mail-in voting and impose stricter voter identification requirements.
"We believe that H.R. 1 needs to pass because the Republican state legislators, concerned about their losses, either in their own states or in the country, are again upping their efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday.
The Supreme Court, which has a conservative 6 to 3 majority, is also considering two Arizona laws that restrict access to voting, which Democrats argue disproportionately affect minority voters. If the court upholds these laws, it could allow legislatures to impose even more restrictive voting laws, and a higher standard for litigants seeking to challenge them.
Progressives have argued that the Senate should eliminate the filibuster, which would allow legislation to advance with a simple majority, in order to pass their key priorities. Some Democrats argue that it is important to eliminate the filibuster particularly so that voting rights legislation can be passed, such as the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court. Former President Barack Obama called for eliminating the filibuster so that voting rights laws could pass the Senate during his eulogy at Lewis' funeral last summer.
Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock suggested there could be a limited exception to filibuster rules for bills related to voting and civil rights. Warnock was elected to represent Georgia in a January special election, and the Republican-controlled state legislature has recently advanced bills to make early and mail-in voting more difficult.
"Voting rights is preservative of all other rights, and we have to do everything we can to preserve the voices of the people in our democracy," Warnock told reporters on Tuesday. "I think that the issues are urgent enough to leave all options on the table."
However, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have expressed opposition to eliminating the filibuster. Manchin on Monday said that he would "never" change his mind about ending the filibuster.
"Never! Jesus Christ! What don't you understand about never?" Manchin said.
Nikole Killion and Brian Dakss contributed to this report.
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