Bipartisan policing deal unlikely this week in blow to talks

Congressional bargainers are likely to miss their latest deadline for completing a bipartisan deal on overhauling police practices, lawmakers and aides said Thursday, 13 months after George Floyd’s killing and with the shadow of next year’s elections lengthening over Congress’ work.

Despite a “June or bust” goal set by chief GOP negotiator Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate was expected to leave town for a two-week recess after Thursday’s session without a final compromise, according to three senators and two Democratic aides who described the status of talks on condition of anonymity.

“I don’t think so,” said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota about the likelihood of finishing a policing deal Thursday. “It’s just nailing down the final details, and there are a couple of red lines for our guys.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and the GOP leadership talk to reporters about progress on an infrastructure bill and voting rights legislation, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP PhotoJ. Scott Applewhite)

“I will give you that agreement,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the bargainers, affirming it was unlikely lawmakers would announce a final deal Thursday. "The bill is not complete, we’re still exchanging paper.”

Another negotiator, No. 2 Senate leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, said lawmakers hoped to produce an overall framework that would leave them with “putting pen to paper to work out the details." Agreeing to the specifics of a compromise has been a chief hurdle for months.

A last-minute turnaround was possible. At the very least, negotiators seemed likely to resume their efforts once Congress returns next month from recess.

But a failure to nail down a full agreement Thursday on legislation aimed at curbing the use of force by police and making them more accountable for abuses would be a further blow to lawmakers' efforts, draining away more time as they address an issue that's roiled the country since last year. Bargainers have already spent months trying to resolve differences, reflecting the complex web of issues and political imperatives that have prevented action so far.

According to people familiar with the talks, the two most divisive issues have been Democrats' efforts make individual police officers accused of abuses liable for civil penalties and whether to make it easier to bring criminal cases against officers for excessive use of force.

Last month, lawmakers missed a May 25 deadline set by President Joe Biden. That date marked the one-year anniversary of when Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer who has since been convicted in his killing.

The further into the year the talks remain unresolved, the more next year's elections for congressional control will make bipartisan cooperation harder. Efforts to curb police practices are entwined with public concerns about race and crime, and all are potent, emotional issues for both parties to use as they appeal to their most ardent base voters.

Floyd's death ignited racial justice protests across the country, was a campaign issue during President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid and prompted debates over crime and authorities’ use of force that rage still. An agreement would let each party assert it’s addressed a consuming national problem, while a stalemate would let each blame the other and fuel next year’s political campaigns.

The talks have been closely watched by powerful outside groups representing police and sheriff organizations, civil rights organizations and Floyd's relatives, who have attracted frequent media attention and had meetings with Biden and members of Congress.

The Democratic-led House approved a wide-ranging bill overhaul in March that's gone nowhere in the 50-50 Senate, with Republicans arguing it goes too far. Democrats blocked a Senate GOP measure last year, saying it was too weak.

Other provisions would curb police use of chokeholds, bolster national data systems of complaints against officers and limit the types of military equipment that police departments can obtain.

Scott cast the talks in optimistic tones Wednesday.

“We’re going to have to now check the definitions and the language that we’re all putting on paper to make sure that we’re all saying the exact same thing. But I don’t think there’s outstanding issues that need to be worked out,” he said.

Others were more cautious.

“I have remained a prisoner of hope through this whole process,” said Booker. “We’ve gone over language from the beginning. It’s nothing new.”