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A Chess Match in the Senate

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations and riots that resulted from it, leaders across the country have been scrambling to pass new laws, measures, and guidelines for police (because apparently passing laws in a hurried panic is the best way to make public policy).  Some states and municipalities have passed stricter guidelines for police conduct.  Others have (for reasons I still can’t figure out) decided to cut funding for their police forces.

The United States Senate is no exception.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set a procedural vote for Wednesday to advance a Police Reform bill to the debate stage.  This bill was authored by South Carolina Republican Tim Scott and in order for it to pass Wednesday’s vote, it would need 60 votes.  That means every GOP Senator would need to vote in favor of it plus an additional 7 Democrats.

The Democrats, however, are likely to play the part of opposition to the best of their ability. 

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has been working overtime to unite his party in resistance to this bill, and with a great deal of success.  Thus far all indications are that Mitch McConnell will fall short of the 7 Democrats needed.  While Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are likely on board, no other Democrats have indicated a willingness to cross party lines.  These two Senators are Democrats representing more conservative states and therefore more likely to cross party lines when it comes to controversial votes like this.  Doug Jones in particular is only representing Alabama because his GOP challenger in the last election was so deeply flawed that he was unelectable.  Jones is up for reelection this November and, barring some miracle, will be defeated.

Other possible pick-ups for this vote are Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana. 

Several reasons have been given for Democrat opposition to moving this bill to the debate stage.  First, it is seen as being insufficient.  This bill does not put a full ban on choke holds and no knock warrants.  Rather, it allows for choke holds in life threatening situations.  Additionally, Democrats want to see stronger federal control of police training and accountability. 

As Democrat Senator from Hawaii said, “I’m not going to vote for a half-ass bill.”

Another point of contention is that the bill, as it stands now, has had no Democratic input.  In order to remedy this, Democratic leadership is pushing to get assurances from McConnell that their party would get a chance to propose a set number of amendments to the bill. 

Another factor is pressure on the Democrats to oppose this legislation.  The NAACP is one such group that has brought this pressure.  It is their contention that this bill would be inadequate in addressing their concerns about racial profiling and excessive use of force by the police.

However, all of this seems to be putting the cart before the horse.  The vote set for Wednesday is merely procedural and opens up debate during which time Democrats will have ample opportunity to offer amendments and address the bills short comings.  Unless the bill moves on to that stage, it sits, gathering dust and receiving no input.  Mitch McConnell said on Monday, “For anyone who actually wants to legislate, it shouldn’t be a difficult call.”

Additionally, no bill passed by the Senate can automatically become law.  It would need to pass through the House of Representatives as well, and then be signed by the President.  For its part, the Democrat controlled House has set a date to vote on its own police reform legislation and it will likely pass with little to no Republican support.  Since this Senate bill would be unlikely to pass the House, and conversely, the House bill unlikely to pass the Senate, the two chambers would each appoint members to a conference committee, the job of which would be to hammer out a compromise bill which each chamber would then have to vote on.  This would mean even more opportunity for the Democrats to negotiate for their agenda items.    

So, with all of these facts laid bare, what could possibly be the Democrat’s motivation for opposing the bill at this stage?  Are they truly afraid of passing a bad bill?  I don’t think that’s the case since opposing it now is stopping the bill from moving on to stages where they could have the most input, where they could offer corrections and improvements.  Additionally, almost every bill that comes out of Washington is deeply flawed.  Quality is usually the last thing on their minds.

I think the answer is that we’re looking at an election year political chess match.  Any bill passed by both Houses of Congress can only become law with the signature of the President.  Thus, the President usually gets the credit for such things.  The Democratic Leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, is probably interested in denying such credit to the President as it would likely be a boon to his reelection campaign.  In particular, signing this bill would be appealing to African-American voters.  This group is usually reliably in the Democrat camp with more than 90% of their population voting for the party’s candidates.   But the party has shown signs of pandering to them more than usual lately with the photo-op of Congressman and Senators kneeling while wearing African garb and the renewed talks of reparations.  Could these indicate that they’re losing confidence in this vote for November?  Even a loss of the African-American by a few percentage points would be devastating.

Additionally, the timing of this is important.  As was already noted, the vote set for Wednesday is procedural in nature.  It is meant to pass this bill onto the Senate for the debate and amendment.  It is not a vote on a final bill.  If it was a final vote, the Democrat filibuster would be seen as obstructionist, or at least more so than it is now.  With no completed product, there is nothing tangible for them to oppose or the Republicans to champion.  The House Bill that is going to pass later this week, however, is ready to go.  Once that vote is finished it will be sent on to the Senate for approval.  This approval is very unlikely. This will flip the narrative and cast the Republican’s as the road block and the Democrats as the Champions of something substantive.  All of this is being done with an eye on November.

With two conflicting bills stalled in the Senate, there will be very little time to resolve the issues this summer as the Senate is set to take a two-week recess in July and both chambers will be spending what precious time they have on a second stimulus package.  After all of that, 1/3 of the Senate and almost the entire House of Representatives will begin campaigning. If this is delayed long enough, then it is likely that they won’t have a completed product till next January of February.

If these attempts by the Senate Democrats are successful it won’t swing the election against Trump, but it could be one of the thousand cuts that eventually contributes to his downfall in November. 

The best defense against this Democrat strategy is for the President and his allies to simply point it out.  They need to point it out loudly and repeatedly.  Political gamesmanship, as common as it is, is not popular with voters.  If Republicans can successfully point out the scheming and ulterior motives of their opponents, it will be a big plus as the election draws nearer.

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