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Democrats, Republicans Clash As GOP Prepares To Unveil A Police Reform Bill Too

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As of today, both parties in Congress are engaged in police reform. That illustrates how the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis upset Americans across the political spectrum. Neither party wants to be seen as doing nothing. House Democrats unveiled their proposals last week, and the Republicans, who control the Senate, laid out their proposals today. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following this. Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the most important parts of the Republican plan?

SNELL: Well, this bill focuses on incentives and more resources. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he wants to make law, and he's open to negotiating.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: And our Democratic friends, if they want to make a law and not just try to make a point, I hope they'll join us in getting on the bill and trying to move forward in the way the Senate does move forward when it's trying to actually get an outcome rather than just sparring back-and-forth.

SNELL: So the starting point for all of this sparring is going to be training and incentives to get local departments and agencies to comply with standards on use of force and reporting, create incentives to ban chokeholds and create a duty to intervene in excessive force. So if one police officer sees another police officer using excessive force, they would have a duty to intervene. There's also more money for body-worn cameras and grants for increasing police forces and community policing. There would also be a bipartisan commission to consider future criminal justice legislation, and it would make lynching a federal crime.

INSKEEP: OK, but these are proposals that differ in their approach - their basic approach to what Democrats have put on the table in the House of Representatives. What are some of the differences?

SNELL: Well, they share a lot of the rhetoric, but there's a serious difference in the approach. The idea of using incentives is really different than the directives and the federal mandates that Democrats are talking about. Democrats want an outright federal ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. Republicans want to make funding contingent upon departments adopting those bans voluntarily. Now, Democrats want police officers to be held liable for their actions in civil court, and Republicans are split there. So those are some very important differences.

And, you know, the framing is similar, but the differences are more than semantic, particularly for the two parties' base voters. You know, if you think about when they talk about the root of the problem, Democrats say it's systemic racism. And Tim Scott, who helped draft this bill, was asked about it today, and this is how he responds to the question of is systemic racism an issue here.

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TIM SCOTT: We are not a racist country. We deal with racism because there's racism in the country. Both are mutually true. They're both true, not mutually exclusive. So I don't worry about the definitions that people want to use. It's good for headlines, but it's really bad for policy. We're going to focus on getting something done.

SNELL: But if Democrats want to be having a conversation about the root of the problem, it's hard to get there if they're kind of not having the same conversation. You know, Democrats are responding to protest movements, some of which want to defund the police. Some of those protesters think the House bill - that more expansive House bill - doesn't go far enough. And Republicans want to fund more policing. So there are some very significant differences here.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and you're getting at a basic question. Do you believe that this is just a few bad apples or that there are fundamental historical problems with institutions and with laws and lots of things that have to be changed across society to make a real difference? Now, what happens when two parties with two political agendas and two very different points of view try to negotiate something?

SNELL: Well, that is a really interesting question in this moment because Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn't outright reject the possibility of negotiating. He says there's a long way to go, and Democrats can't support tinkering around the edges. He talks about replacing an ineffective system with a new system. But those are some fairly high demands and standards. They want to do away with qualified immunity, which is the principle that allows police officers, in many cases, to avoid lawsuits. And Republicans really have not agreed on whether or not that can be a part of this.

And, you know, it will be very difficult for Democrats to accept any version of this bill that doesn't meet the standards that protesters and their base are calling for as we come up on an election year that depends very much on the support of people who are out in the streets right now.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the update. It's always a pleasure hearing from you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.