Reporter's Notebook: On police reform, Congress may have missed its 'moment'

“A kicked dog hollers,” fumed Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., at a House Judiciary Committee meeting last Wednesday, preparing a police-reform bill.

Decorum is often paramount on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers may vehemently disagree on policy, but they address one another as “Mr.” and “Ms.” They yield “to my friend from West Virginia” – even if they don’t know their “friend from West Virginia” and have never set foot in the Mountain State.

And, Cedric Richmond, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had had enough of Republicans at the police-reform “markup” session. A “markup” is where members debate and vote on amendments and decide on the final text of legislation.

Republicans offered amendments to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization. There was acrimonious debate about Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. The sides argued about the “boogaloo” movement. They tangled about the Capitol Hill Organized Protest [CHOP] in Seattle.

Lawmakers usually have kept their emotions in check with one another, but an enraged Richmond tore into his Republican colleagues.

“I am sitting here offended and angry as he--! And, I want to explain, what we always say, how we refer to each other, my ‘good friends on the other side!’” Richmond seethed. “By the time I’m finished, you will be clear that we are not good friends.”

Richmond then tangled with one of the GOP’s signature antagonists, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. Richmond asserted that GOP proposals to change the bill were a “tangent and a distraction.” He noted that for Republicans on the committee, “all are white males,” adding, they “never lived in my shoes and do not know what it’s like to be an African-American male.”

Gaetz interrupted Richmond. The Florida Republican asserted that couldn’t be true because he didn’t know if Republicans had “nonwhite children.”

“It’s about black males. Black people in the streets that are getting killed, and if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him, too. And clearly, I’m more concerned about him than you are,” Richmond charged.

That accusation ignited Gaetz.

“You don’t know how much we care about our families,” an animated Gaetz countered. “Who the he-- do you think you are?”

“A kicked dog hollers,” Gaetz proclaimed.

“Was that a nerve?” Richmond questioned.

“You’re da-- right it was a nerve!” Gaetz responded.

The country learned after this exchange that Gaetz has raised an immigrant child from Cuba for years: Nestor Galban, 19, who’s about to go to college. Gaetz didn’t formally adopt Galban, but described him as his “son, in every conceivable way.”

The rancor over police reform has been bicameral.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone African-American GOP senator, rolled out his party’s police-reform package Wednesday. A few minutes later, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., decried the legislation on the Senate floor as a “token, half-hearted” approach.

The use of the word “token” disturbed Scott.

“I would love for them to not use the word token as a way of race-baiting on such an important topic,” he said.

Scott was emotional later as he spoke on the floor, observing five years after the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist.

“People wonder why our country’s so divided,” Scott said. “It’s so easy to walk on this floor and say ‘token’ and send the same race-baiting message that we’ve heard for a very long time.”

Scott characterized such an approach as “toxic,” “pushing our country towards an implosion that is avoidable.”

Durbin apologized to Scott on the floor shortly thereafter.

“What Sen. Durbin took issue with in his floor speech was not Sen. Scott’s bill, but that the senate majority leader [Mitch McConnell] would short-circuit this critical debate,” Durbin’s spokeswoman Emily Hampsten said.

Now, step away from the invective and politics for a moment over this galvanizing issue.

The Senate failed to start debate on a police-reform bill Wednesday, blocked by Democrats who preferred the House legislation.

Scott wrote his own police-reform bill for Senate Republicans. He argued that in many respects, the House Democrats’ measure, crafted primary by Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass,  D-Calif., “went too far.” But, Scott conceded his bill and the one crafted by Bass had about “90 percent” similarities.

By the same token, Bass noted that the “major categories” in Scott’s plan “mimic our major categories.”

She continued, “I think that shows that there might be room to work together.”

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows hasn’t shown much interest in the business of the House Judiciary Committee since late last year. In the fall, Meadows, then a North Carolina Republican congressman, routinely sat in on meetings of the Judiciary Committee as it readied articles of impeachment against President Trump. But, Meadows again focused his gaze on the Judiciary panel last week as it started the bill’s markup.

Meadows informally talked with Bass at the back of the hearing room during the meeting.

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The biggest difference in the legislation drafted by Scott and Bass: qualified immunity. Democrats have insisted on curbing qualified immunity, a shield police officers often would deploy to protect themselves from lawsuits and prosecution. Scott called the Democrats’ request a “poison pill,” and qualified immunity was one of the few issues Meadows flagged with the House Democrats’ bill.

“The red line for us is making sure that we will do no harm as it relates to the rule of law and the ability to support law enforcement and make our communities safer,” Meadows said. “That’s the only red line I know of.”

The House is set to pass its bill on Thursday, barring an invasion of murder hornets.

McConnell, R-Ky., set up a test vote on the “motion to proceed” to Scott’s bill Wednesday, but Democrats torpedoed starting debate on the measure. The Senate currently has had 53 Republicans. Seven Democrats would need to vote “yes” to break a filibuster to launch debate on Scott’s legislation. Sixty yeas would be required to overcome a filibuster.
The vote was 55-45.

Democrats were leery that McConnell would give them an open amendment process, something McConnell called “horse trading.” An open amendment process is where Senate Democrats could have tried to impose outright bans on chokeholds and curb civil and criminal immunity for police. But, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argued the GOP measure was beyond repair.

Scott had been optimistic about passing a bill last week.

“I believe the other side has some stuff we have to hear and that our side has some stuff they need to hear,” Scott said, “but if we don’t do that, we’ll just talk about scoring political points. You’ll go on MSNBC or CNN and we’ll go on Fox and everybody will have their chatter and more people in communities of color will have less confidence in the institutions of power and authority in this nation because we missed the moment.”

And so, police reform has entered a stasis.

Are Democrats willing to bend a little toward the Republicans in their policy approaches? Are Republicans willing to bend toward the Democrats? Is Trump really willing to accept something from Democrats? Some Democrats would prefer to bide their time and see if they have control of the House, Senate and White House next year to pass legislation – essentially converting police reform into an election-year issue.

It’s easy to shout on Capitol Hill. It’s easy to score political points. It’s tougher to move the same bill through the House and Senate and deposit it on the president’s desk.

Still, lawmakers have been mindful of millions of people marching in the streets.

Sure. They saw big protests after the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Conn., but nothing like this. And, a major firearms bill hasn’t moved through Congress in decades.

People protested ObamaCare. But, despite the noise, ObamaCare has remained the law of the land.

“A kicked dog hollers,” Richmond said at last week’s markup.

Lots of people are aggrieved right now: those feeling oppressed by the police and those feeling the left unfairly has attacked law enforcement.

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Casting aspersions at the other side or angling for a wedge issue in an election would be simple. Legislating is hard. Both sides will have to give if they’re going to make law this year.

Police reform is frozen. And, as Scott said last week, Congress may have “missed the moment.”

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