By WILL WEISSERT and PADMANANDA RAMA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Cheered on by President Joe Biden, House Democrats hustled Wednesday to pass the most ambitious effort in decades to overhaul policing nationwide, able to avoid clashing with moderates in their own party who are wary of reigniting a debate they say hurt them during last fall’s election.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was approved 220-212 late Wednesday.
The sweeping legislation, which was first approved last summer but stalled in the Senate, was named in honor of Floyd, whose killing by police in Minnesota last Memorial Day sparked protests nationwide. The bill would ban chokeholds and “qualified immunity” for law enforcement and create national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability.
“My city is not an outlier, but rather an example of the inequalities our country has struggled with for centuries,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who represents the Minneapolis area near where Floyd died. She asked her colleagues if they would “have the moral courage to pursue justice and secure meaningful change?”
Democrats say they were determined to pass the bill a second time, to combat police brutality and institutional racism after the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans following interactions with law enforcement — images of which were sometimes jarringly captured on video. Those killings drew a national and international outcry.
Floyd’s family watched the emotional debate from a nearby House office building.
But the debate over legislation has turned into a political liability for Democrats as Republicans seized on calls by some activists and progressives to “defund the police” to argue that Democrats were intent on slashing police force budgets. This bill doesn’t do that.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said it was a reason the party, after talking confidently of growing its majority in November, instead saw it shrink to just 10 seats, 221-211.
“We played too much defense on ‘defund the police,’” Perez said.
Moderate Democrats said the charge helped drive Democratic defeats in swing districts around the country.
“No one ran on ‘defund the police,’ but all you have to do is make that a political weapon,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Texas Democrat who has pushed for more police funding in places like his city of Laredo, where the law enforcement presence is especially concentrated given the close proximity to the Mexican border.
While Democrats used their then-larger majority to pass the police reform measure in the House last summer, it stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, where GOP senators pushed an alternate plan that Democrats blocked from consideration, calling it inadequate. Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, but it seems unlikely the bill could pass the Senate without substantial changes to win GOP support.
The bill had been set for a vote Thursday, but House leaders abruptly changed the schedule to wrap up their week’s work after U.S. Capitol Police warned of threats of violence at the Capitol two months after the Jan. 6 siege.
Senior Democratic congressional aides said Wednesday they were eager to get the bill to the Senate, where negotiations will take longer.
Republicans quickly revived the “defund the police” criticisms. “Our law enforcement officers need more funding not less,” Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., said during Wednesday’s debate.
Despite the political attacks by Republicans, even the House’s more centrist lawmakers, some representing more conservative districts, backed the bill.
“Black Americans have endured generations of systemic racism and discrimination for too long, and this has been painfully evident in their treatment by law enforcement,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash, who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
That endorsement came despite the bill’s prohibitions on so-called qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement from certain lawsuits and is one of the main provisions that will likely need to be negotiated in any compromise with the Senate.
Police unions and other law enforcement groups have argued that, without such legal protections, fear of lawsuits will stop people from becoming police officers — even though the measure permits such suits only against law enforcement agencies, rather than all public employees.
California Rep. Karen Bass, who authored the bill,…