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To defend legislative failure, Tim Scott condemns an idea he endorsed

Tim Scott said he supported conditional grants for police departments. He changed his mind when Democrats agreed with him.

For five months, there were bipartisan negotiations over a bill to reform law enforcement policies and tactics. For five months, a group of congressional Democrats — led by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Rep. Karen Bass — made a series of offers as part of a lengthy set of talks. For five months, Republicans, led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, said the offers weren't good enough.

Last week, the negotiations collapsed, touching off a new debate over who's to blame.

The GOP senator wants the public to believe Democrats aren't just responsible for failure, they also deserve blame for having pushed a radical idea. CBS News reported:

"We said simply this: 'I'm not going to participate in reducing funding for the police after we saw a major city after major city defund the police.' Many provisions in this bill that he wanted me to agree to limited or reduced funding for the police, " the Republican from South Carolina said Friday during an interview with CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent and "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan.

"Here's what we know," the senator added. "We have about $1 billion in grant money that goes to police. When you start saying, 'In order to receive those dollars, you must do A, B and C. And if you don't do a B and C, you literally lose eligibility for the two major pots of money ... when you tell local law enforcement agencies that you are ineligible for money, that's defunding the police, there's no way to spin that."

Scott was describing a policy known as "conditional grants": The U.S. government makes funds available to other state agencies, but there are strings attached. If the agencies meet the conditions, they get the money; if they refuse to accept the conditions, they don't get the money.

In this case, conditional grants were at the heart of the federal efforts to reform police tactics. Proponents wanted to see a series of systemic changes — banning neck restraints, prohibiting "no knock" warrants in federal drug cases, reforming qualified immunity, etc. — that police departments would adopt because they'd have a financial incentive to do so.

According to Scott, such an approach should be seen as "defunding the police."

At least, that's what he's saying now.

New York magazine's Jon Chait noted yesterday that when the South Carolina Republican first started tackling possible legislation on reforming police tactics, he seemed to endorse the same idea he now opposes. PBS's Judy Woodruff asked Scott last year, for example, "Senator, as you know, Democrats are calling for an outright ban on certain measures, like a choke hold or the so-called no-knock warrant. In your proposal, you are saying these things should be tied to federal funding, that, if departments go ahead with them, they risk losing funding."

Scott replied, "Yes." In the same interview, the GOP senator added, "My legislation gets us to the position where, if you are in a law enforcement department that does not already have a ban on choke holds, you do not have access to the federal funding."

Or put another way, Scott endorsed the same conditional approach he now condemns.

The point is not to play gotcha with another congressional Republican, though the South Carolinian's reversal is tough to explain away. It's also not to marvel at the evolving definition of "defund the police," though that matters, too.

Rather, the broader takeaway is that Scott is demonstrating why bipartisan policymaking so often fails in contemporary politics.

As we recently discussed, there's a school of thought, generally espoused by centrist and conservative Democrats, that if the governing party makes a good-faith effort at striking compromises, hears Republicans out, engages in lengthy negotiations, and accepts meaningful concessions in the interest of making a deal, GOP lawmakers will work in a constructive and bipartisan way.

But we're now confronted with fresh evidence to the contrary. Democrats worked on important legislation built around an idea that their Republican negotiating partner had already endorsed — publicly and on national television. When they agreed with him, that same Republican negotiating partner rejected their overtures and denounced the idea he said he supported, deeming it dangerous and radical.

Is this surprising? No. Is it another example of Republicans acting like a post-policy party, indifferent toward governing? Yes.

Update: The Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a written statement today that seems to flatly contradict Tim Scott's assertions, though the groups didn't mention the senator by name.