The House approved a far-reaching police overhaul from Democrats Thursday, a vote heavy with emotion and symbolism as a divided Congress struggles to address the global outcry over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gathered with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the Capitol steps, challenging opponents not to allow the deaths to have been in vain or the outpouring of public support for changes to go unmatched. But the collapse of a Senate Republican bill leaves final legislation in doubt.
“Exactly one month ago, George Floyd spoke his final words — ‘I can’t breathe’ — and changed the course of history,” Pelosi said.
She said the Senate faces a choice “to honor George Floyd’s life or to do nothing.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is perhaps the most ambitious set of proposed changes to police procedures and accountability in decades. Backed by the nation’s leading civil rights groups, it aims to match the moment of demonstrations that filled streets across the nation. It has almost zero chance of becoming law.
On the eve of the vote, President Donald Trump’s administration said he would veto the bill. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also said it would not pass the Republican-held chamber.
After the GOP policing bill stalled this week, blocked by Democrats, Trump shrugged.
“If nothing happens with it, it’s one of those things,” Trump said. “We have different philosophies.”
Congress is now at a familiar impasse despite protests outside their door and polling that shows Americans overwhelmingly want changes after the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in interactions with law enforcement. The two parties are instead appealing to voters ahead of the fall election, which will determine control of the House, Senate and White House.
“We hear you. We see you. We are you,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., during the debate.
It has been a month since Floyd’s May 25 death sparked a global reckoning over police tactics and racial injustice. Since then, funeral services were held for Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot and killed by police in Atlanta. Thursday is also what would have been the 18th birthday of Tamir Rice, a Black boy killed in Ohio in 2014.
Lawmakers who have been working from home during the COVID-19 crisis were summoned to the Capitol for an emotional, hours-long debate. Dozens voted by proxy under new pandemic rules.
During the day, several Democratic lawmakers read the names of those killed, shared experiences of racial bias and echoed support of Black Lives Matter activists.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said hundreds of thousands of people “in every state in the union” are marching in the streets to make sure Floyd “will not be just another Black man dead at the hands of the police.”
Republican lawmakers countered the bill goes too far and failed to include GOP input. “All lives matter,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. New York Rep. Pete King said it’s time to stand with law enforcement, the “men and women in blue.” House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy decried the “mob” of demonstrators.
At one point Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., stood up to say he just didn’t understand what was happening in the country — from Floyd’s death to the protests that followed. Several Black Democratic lawmakers rose to encourage him to pick up a U.S. history book or watch some of the many films now streaming about the Black experience in America.
Later, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noting the legacy of Emmett Till, asked others to “walk in my shoes.”
In the stalemate over the policing overhaul, the parties are settled into their political zones, almost ensuring no legislation will become law. While there may be shared outrage over Floyd’s death, the lawmakers remain far apart on the broader debate over racial bias in policing and other institutions. The 236-181 House vote was largely on party lines, with three Republicans joining Democrats in favor of passage.
Both bills share common elements that could be grounds for a compromise. Central to both would be the creation of a national database of use-of-force incidents, which is viewed as a way to provide transparency on officers’ records if they transfer from one agency to another. The bills would restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures, including beefing up the use of body cameras.
The Democratic bill goes much further, mandating many of those changes, while also revising the federal statute for police misconduct and holding officers personally liable for damages in lawsuits. It also would halt the practice of sending military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
Neither bill goes as far as some activists want with calls to defund the police and shift resources to other community services.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, who drafted the GOP package, said the bill is now “closer to the trash can than it’s ever been.”
“I’m frustrated,” he said on Fox News Channel.
Scott insisted he was open to amending his bill with changes proposed by Democrats. But Democrats doubted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow a thorough debate, and instead blocked the GOP bill.
Senate Democrats believe Senate Republicans will face mounting public pressure to open negotiations and act. But ahead of the November election, that appears uncertain.