Senate Republicans fall far short with narrow police-reform bill

The Senate bill was less of a sincere effort to change the system, and more of a political move intended to check a box in an election year.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington February 2, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS ENVIRONMENT) - RTR2X7LP(C) Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / REUTERS

Confronted with dramatic protests in support of social justice, Senate Republicans realized the times called for action -- or at least, the appearance of action.

To that end, GOP leaders last week unveiled a fairly narrow piece of legislation, championed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) -- the chamber's only African-American Republican -- and ostensibly designed to overhaul how law enforcement treats communities of color.

It did not fare well.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked Republicans from taking up a bill to overhaul policing, calling the legislation flawed and a nonstarter. A motion to open debate on the measure, which needed 60 votes, failed 55-45.

It's worth noting that the vote was originally 56-44, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) switched his vote from "yea" to "nay" for procedural reasons. (The vote will leave him the option of bringing the bill back to the floor at a later date.) Also note that two red-state Democrats supported the GOP bill -- Alabama's Doug Jones and West Virginia's Joe Manchin -- but Republicans needed several more.

Today's outcome was not a surprise. Senate Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), made clear yesterday that they saw Tim Scott's bill as "irrevocably flawed." What's more, Democrats were eager to highlight the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the Republican proposal, as did 138 civil-rights organizations, led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Given the importance of the issue, and the public demand for meaningful reforms, why did the Senate effort fail so badly? Let's take stock:

* The bill was limited in its scope. Reform advocates were looking for a bill that, at a minimum, banned police chokeholds, ended qualified immunity for police officers, curtailed no-knock warrants, and restricted the militarization of local police department. The GOP bill didn't do any of these things.

* The effort needed to be bipartisan, but it wasn't. Republicans knew from the outset that they'd need considerable Democratic support, but they didn't make much of an effort to get it. On the contrary, GOP leaders seemed eager to antagonize the very senators whose support they'd need.

* The endeavor was done in a post-policy way: Senate Dems recommended that the bill start in the Judiciary Committee, where members could hold a hearing or two and engage in the substance of the plan. Republicans refused.

As we discussed last week, it's led some to question whether the Senate bill was less of a sincere effort to change the system, and more of a political move intended to check a box in an election year.

"It is designed to fail so that they could have a political talking point -- and this is the richest part of it all -- where they are going to blame Democrats for not wanting real reform," Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said this week.

A far more ambitious proposal is pending in the Democratic-led House, which is likely to pass the measure, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Its future in the upper chamber appears bleak.