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Uphill: Stimulus in the Senate
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Uphill: Stimulus in the Senate

Plus: The upper chamber prepares to consider police reform legislation again.

Good morning—especially to the Senate clerks who stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading the entire legislative text of Democrats’ coronavirus relief plan to a nearly empty Senate chamber. 

Aid Debate Kicks Off

Senate Democrats voted yesterday to begin debate on their nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, aiming for a final vote potentially over the weekend.

The bill would send a $1,400 check to many Americans with an additional $1,400 per dependent. Breaking from the House bill, moderate Senate Democrats successfully pushed to narrow the pool of people receiving the checks, phasing them out much earlier for people making more than $75,000 per year and couples making more than $150,000 per year. 

It still boosts federal unemployment benefits from $300 per week to $400 per week and extends the program, currently set to expire March 14, through the end of August. The legislation has funding for vaccine distribution, coronavirus testing, and schools. It also includes $350 billion for state and local governments—funding Republicans have taken issue with as state revenues have been better than many previously feared.

The Biden administration and top Democrats have argued the sweeping legislation remains appropriate to the scale of the pandemic and ongoing economic fallout, as the virus continues to spread and millions remain out of work. Republicans say the bill is bloated and not necessary, pointing to improving economic conditions and noting that vaccines are expected to be widely available in the coming months. (The Washington Post has a good breakdown of concerns from economists about whether it is not targeted enough here.)

Republicans were unified in voting against moving to debate on the measure yesterday. Sen. Ron Johnson also objected to dispensing with the full reading of the bill—meaning Senate clerks had to spend nearly 11 hours reading the 600-plus pages of legislation aloud before consideration could begin in earnest. 

“We all know this will merely delay the inevitable,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday. “It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks, who work very hard, day-in, day-out, to help the Senate function.”

Three hours of debate will follow this morning, after which the Senate GOP can offer and force votes on as many amendments as they want. Democrats are using budget reconciliation to consider the bill, a special process that will allow them to approve the legislation without GOP support. Reconciliation requires a marathon “vote-a-rama” on amendments to take place before the measure receives a vote on final passage. That is expected to begin around noon today.

Some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul, have advocated for making the debate as painful as possible. That entails not just a barrage of amendments to slow down passage of the legislation, but also amendments written intentionally to place pressure on moderate Democrats.

Paul told Politico he hopes the process drags out: “I’m hoping for infinity,” he said earlier this week. Still, there are few stronger forces in the Senate than the overwhelming desire among senators to fly home as soon as possible each week. Many Republican senators may abide by a process that stretches through the weekend, but they could get impatient for a resolution beyond that.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin pointed out that dynamic, telling reporters, “Members start with a great number of amendments and great resolve and eventually it dwindles down to a handful of amendments and no resolve. People just want to get out of here.”

Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday that he is setting up a schedule to try to boost the GOP conference’s stamina. Historically, he told reporters, “we offer a couple of hundred amendments on the Republican side and we get a couple of dozen voted on and people tire out. I’m coming up with a process that keeps people from tiring out.”

Beyond Republican amendments, Democrats are also set to weigh in on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that provision out of order for the reconciliation process last week, and it was stripped from the Senate version of the legislation after House Democrats passed it in their bill. Sanders’ amendment is not expected to succeed. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have both expressed opposition to the wage hike.

After final passage in the Senate, the House will have to vote again on the revised bill to send it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

What’s Next For Police Reform?

With passage of their first reconciliation package imminent, Democrats are beginning to turn toward other priorities. While it may take a couple of months for members to coalesce behind a second reconciliation measure—expected to focus on infrastructure—a range of other policy issues will receive attention as lawmakers seek to pinpoint whether bipartisan cooperation is possible in some areas. One of the most pressing goals for Democrats is to pass an array of reforms to the nation’s policing to prevent police brutality and injustice. But last year’s debate over the matter stalled out, with both parties introducing their own competing bills. With a new Democratic Senate, there could be more potential for movement on the issue, but striking a compromise that can pass under the chamber’s current rules will still be an uphill climb. My colleague Andrew Egger breaks down the two main proposals and the issues at play:

Last summer, protests against police brutality and systemic racism gripped the nation following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But subsequent congressional attempts from both House Democrats and Senate Republicans to pass criminal justice reform bills ultimately foundered, with the two parties unable to find a palatable compromise despite broad agreement on a raft of proposed policies. 

Now, Congress is trying again. The House of Representatives this week passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—the same proposal Democrats put forward last year—on a near party-line vote of 220-212. The bill could make it farther along the legislative track this time around. When Republicans controlled the Senate, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell simply ignored the bill.

Republicans have their own plan: the JUSTICE Act, introduced last summer by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. When it came up for a vote in the Senate last year, only two Democrats voted for it: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who lost reelection in November. Democrats denounced Scott’s bill as not going nearly far enough to address the issue, while Republicans accuse the Democratic plan of going much too far.

Given these obstinate battle lines, what’s most interesting about the two bills is how much they overlap. Both would increase the amount of oversight the federal government conducts over state and local law enforcement, requiring states to report incidents where officers or suspects used force against one another to the Justice Department. Both would increase funding to train law enforcement on de-escalation practices and equip officers with body cameras. And both contain provisions designed to cut down on law enforcement use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

On this last provision, the two bills differ in how they would discourage such practices: the Justice in Policing Act would simply ban chokeholds, while the JUSTICE Act would cut federal funding to departments that fail to ban chokeholds themselves. Scott’s bill would also increase state and local law enforcements’ obligation to report data on their use of no-knock warrants, but it would not ban them outright. This difference has led Democrats to scoff at the legislation as “symbolic”—although attaching funding strings to these sorts of requirements is a tried-and-true federal method of getting states and localities to do as D.C. wishes in cases where the federal government doesn’t necessarily have the constitutional authority to boss them around outright.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two bills, however, concerns the issue of qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that serves as a significant liability shield for law enforcement officers accused of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Under qualified immunity, officers cannot be held personally liable for constitutional violations unless they are found to have violated “clearly established” law. In practice, this means—as Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack told The Dispatch last year—that a civil suit against an officer is doomed unless a court finds “a substantially similar case where the courts have already agreed that a person’s rights were violated.”

The Democratic bill would end qualified immunity; the Republican bill would not. It’s not hard to see why: Opening up rank-and-file officers to significant legal liability in the course of work is a nonstarter for a Republican Party that has increasingly defined itself as pro-police in recent years. One recent poll found that nearly 4 in 5 Republican voters were either very or extremely concerned about the country’s “lack of support for the police.” Scott himself called ending qualified immunity a “poison pill” last year.

At the same time, Scott has signaled that he and Senate Republicans would be willing to open up other avenues of redress for people whose constitutional rights are violated by police—only against police departments rather than the individual officers themselves.

“Leadership starts at the top—full stop,” Scott said in a statement shared with The Dispatch. “I am open to having conversations on civil qualified immunity as it relates to police departments, cities, and municipalities being held accountable for the actions of those they employ.”

“I am disappointed that the House has decided to vote on a partisan bill in an attempt to fix a non-partisan issue,” Scott went on. “I hope my friends on the other side of the aisle will come to the table to find common ground where we can make meaningful changes that will bring us closer to the goal of a more just country.”

Interestingly, that statement bore a strong resemblance to one Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema released after voting against Scott’s bill last year: “Passing legislation to reform policing and save lives requires a genuinely bipartisan approach. A process without bipartisan negotiations from the start will not pass the Senate, and risks further dividing Americans instead of bringing us together.”

On an issue where lawmakers have found significant common ground, will the current Congress be able to strike a bipartisan compromise—or will they only be able to accuse one another of not being bipartisan enough? 

In the absence of a significant Senate rules change, which moderate Democrats including Manchin and Sinema still say they oppose, Democrats would have to win support from 10 Republicans to surmount the 60-vote threshold for passage of their police reform legislation in the chamber. Scott has had discussions with House Democrats about a potential compromise, but those talks have not been fruitful yet.

Rep. Joyce Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters this week that she and other leaders of the caucus have had “great conversations” with Scott on the issue. She projected confidence that Congress could find a path forward, saying the country is in a different place with regard to law enforcement than it has been previously. 

“I think it has given people more feeling of, ‘This could be the right thing to do at the right time,’” she said.

Presented Without Comment

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.