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Senate Republicans unveil police reform bill, setting up vote for next week

Senators hold hearing on police reform
Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on police reform 13:03

Washington — Senate Republicans unveiled legislation responding to nationwide protests calling for police reform and an end to racial violence, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the upper chamber plans to vote on the bill as early as next week. 

The measure, spearheaded by Senator Tim Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, comes after President Trump signed an executive order implementing some reforms on Tuesday.

Scott and Mitch McConnell presented the legislation in a press conference Wednesday morning. House Democrats introduced their own legislative package last week, but McConnell has said he won't bring that legislation to the Senate floor once it passes in the House.

Scott said that too often Americans were presented with the "false, binary choice" of supporting black Americans or supporting law enforcement, arguing that his measure proved it was possible to do both. McConnell urged Democrats to support the legislation.

America Protests Congress
Senator Tim Scott, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. Andrew Harnik / AP

"Our Democratic friends, if they want to make a law, and not just make a point, I hope they will join us in getting on the bill," McConnell said. Senator Ben Sasse argued that "the vast majority of cops are really great," but said this bill, known as the Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act,  is the best chance to respond to bad actors in law enforcement.

"This bill next week ought to get one hundred votes to begin the debate," Sasse said. Scott agreed that the bill would likely be pushed through the Senate quickly.

"I don't think the nation is going to allow us to lose the momentum," Scott said. He added that he hoped Mr. Trump would support the bill, saying that he had helped advise the White House on the executive order signed by the president.

"I hope the president will join forces and jump on board," Scott said. He also argued that Republicans were less focused on defining systemic racism than addressing the problems at hand.

"I don't know how to tell people the nation is not racist. I'll try again: we are not a racist nation," he said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said later Wednesday that the president supports Scott's bill.

The Republican bill would require increased reporting of use of force by police officers and no-knock warrants. It would also provide grants for law enforcement to be equipped with body cameras and require departments to maintain and share officer disciplinary records.

The legislation focuses heavily on police training, requiring the Justice Department to develop and provide guidelines for deescalating police encounters. It also would establish several commissions, including one studying the conditions affecting black men and boys and one reviewing best practices for police departments.

The Republican bill is more modest than the one introduced by House Democrats, although there is some overlap between the two measures, such as a provision to make lynching a federal hate crime. The Democrats' legislation includes outright bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. The executive order signed by Mr. Trump on Tuesday encourages police departments to ban the use of chokeholds unless an officer's life is at risk.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, who introduced the Democratic police reform bill in the House, told reporters Wednesday that she didn't think Scott's proposal had "teeth," but said she was "hopeful" for negotiations.

"I haven't seen Senator Scott's proposal yet, but I have seen the toplines so I know the major categories actually mimic our major categories. So I think that shows that there might be room to work together," Bass said. "However, from what I have seen — and again I haven't read the language of the bill — it looks like he takes the teeth out of some of our proposals."

However, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries expressed skepticism about Scott's bill.

"It is still not clear to me that senate Republicans are serious about meaningful and transformative reform," Jeffries told reporters, adding that "incremental change is meaningless at this moment."

In a statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi also slammed Scott's bill.

"House Democrats hope to work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that creates meaningful change to end the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality in America. The Senate proposal of studies and reporting without transparency and accountability is inadequate. The Senate's so-called Justice Act is not action," she said.

Scott said during the conference that he believed it was possible to have "robust debate" with the Democrats and reach a middle ground on some of the issues like banning chokeholds and reforming qualified immunity.

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