Amid VP scrutiny, Kamala Harris leads charge against GOP police bill

Amid VP scrutiny, Kamala Harris leads charge against GOP police billJune 24, 2020

Senate Democrats are preparing to torpedo Republicans’ police reform proposal. And vice-presidential frontrunner Kamala Harris is leading the way.

It’s a critical moment for Harris, who has faced scrutiny over her record as a former state attorney general. But as she finds herself in the middle of a messy congressional debate over how to stop police killings of Black people, she has a national platform that others in contention for vice president simply can’t match.

After largely hunkering down since leaving the presidential race, the California Democrat was front-and-center in the Senate on Tuesday, which will go down as a pivotal day in the movement to tackle police misconduct and also, potentially, in the maneuvering to be Joe Biden’s running mate.

The California Democrat tore into a GOP proposal from Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) as inadequate before he even finished writing it. She coordinated with former 2020 rival Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a letter rejecting the GOP’s approach on the floor. And she tangled with a senior Republican on the Senate floor over Democrats’ opposition to even debating the GOP bill, producing a moment that went viral on the left.

Harris also conceded it may take until after November with a new Congress and White House to pass the kind of reform that she thinks the nation needs.

“We cannot proceed with what they’re offering. It’s empty. It’s empty,” she told a pair of reporters on Tuesday. “There’s no question that if we are in the majority in the Senate and that if Joe Biden were president there would be a lot more movement.”

Harris added that she’s “not at all” thinking about her prospects to join Biden’s ticket after spending an hour on the floor trashing the GOP’s approach as “not meeting the moment” and debating Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). She called working on law enforcement issues “part of my life’s work.” And she declined to address her private talks on police reform with the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Harris said if Republicans started work on the legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee rather than bringing it directly to the floor, Democrats might find themselves in a far different place. Instead, they are preparing on Wednesday to filibuster a GOP bill because it doesn’t establish strong new federal policing standards, which could stop the police reform effort in Congress until next year.

“She could show some leadership by helping us get started so then we can work toward a consensus,” Cornyn said after their confrontation. “It’s not rational. So it’s hard to understand. It’s almost like these folks haven’t been in the Senate very long and they don’t know how to legislate.”

Harris’ combative appearance Tuesday recalled the most memorable moments of her relatively brief tenure as a senator, including staring down Trump appointees Bill Barr, Jeff Sessions, and John Kelly — and tearing into Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

Again, it was the unscripted rejoinders that garnered her the most attention. Before Harris could finish her speech, Cornyn, a fellow Judiciary Committee member, interrupted to remind her that her anti-lynching legislation was part of the Republican reform effort.

She quickly rejected the idea of using it as a bargaining chip and said “It’s like saying to a mother, ‘Save one of your children and leave the others.’”

The standoff ended with a quintessential Harris moment — a curt reply that stops an opponent in their tracks — which her Senate aides quickly shared on Twitter.

“Don’t you think that sort of interaction and debate and negotiation out in front of all 330 million Americans would be beneficial to healing our country and coming to some consensus about what the appropriate reforms should be?” Cornyn asked.

“Indeed,” Harris shot back, referencing her earlier critique of the GOP’s process. “That is the beauty of the Judiciary Committee. Our meetings are public meetings.”

While Harris and her party were pummeled by the right after they went public with their opposition to even beginning floor debate on the GOP’s bill, their position is backed in the civil rights community.

“The black community is tired of the lip service,” said Ben Crump, the prominent civil rights attorney who is representing George Floyd’s family. “Kamala has achieved changes in California from working within the system and coordinating with us who are not inside. Now she’s doing that nationally.”

Harris has not exactly emerged as a bipartisan deal-cutter in her short Senate career. She was one of just three Democrats to oppose a centrist immigration compromise in 2018. But she did back the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, and Booker defended her willingness to get a deal with the Trump administration — even as the president has bragged about it regularly.

“How many things does she have to do demonstrably to show she’s beyond politics when it comes to issues of racial justice?” Booker said.

Scott said that while he’s been talking frequently to Booker, he didn’t connect with Harris until a bipartisan meeting on Tuesday, about 24 hours before the upcoming vote. Scott said it yielded no “discernible” progress.

“I’ve tried to touch base with her on several occasions. We’ve been playing phone tag and text tag and we had four different meetings set up that keep getting canceled,” Scott said. “She has not been a part of the conversations I’ve had.”

A Harris aide acknowledged they had difficult connecting but disputed that four meetings were set up and canceled.

Aside from brisk Senate votes, Harris has largely stayed with her husband in their Washington apartment since the coronavirus quarantines. A leading contender to join Biden on the ticket — and the only black woman in the Senate — she spent weeks focused on bills to help small businesses and address health disparities of people of color amid the pandemic.

But since the killing of Floyd by police in Minneapolis galvanized the movement around police accountability and racial justice, Harris has worked to become a key voice on the issues, appearing at protests and taking the lead on the reforms.

Crump said he wants to see a black woman picked as Biden’s No. 2, and Harris’ resolve in the Senate on police reform has only solidified his opinion of her.

“Kamala would be an outstanding vice president,” he said. “She has the right temperament. She has the sensitivity to listen when necessary, but to lead when it is required on issues that matter.”

Her push has also won over some skeptics who viewed her as too accommodating to law enforcement over her career as a prosecutor and state attorney general and believe she squandered several chances to advocate for ambitious changes in those roles.

Negotiations over the fate of the Democrats’ police reform bill, which calls for banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants and would make it easier to sue police officers accused of wrongdoing, again tested her taste for concession. This time, Harris’ advocacy among congressional Democrats was “central” to Democrats’ approach, said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

Harris, Booker and Schumer were coordinating for weeks, since the Democratic bill was introduced and throughout the GOP’s rollout of its own legislation. Harris even panned Scott’s legislation before it was introduced, showing she decided early on his approach fell short of what was needed.

Had Harris chosen to weaken the Democratic bill, and then brought her caucus along, she would have faced considerable backlash from activists wary of accepting what they view as political window dressing. At the same time, some Democrats said they worried about acquiescing to something that would allow Trump to claim progress on the issue — however modest — at a crucial time in his re-election bid.

“This is the floor. This is the minimum that can be done right now,” said Lynda Garcia, policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Garcia, a veteran of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in order for the outlined reforms to work, they have to be enacted together. Still, she and others conceded that they still worry about not passing any legislation at a time when people are hungry for reform.

“There are folks out there who think making these sorts of changes still falls short of the changes that need to happen, such [as] shrinking the role of law enforcement and pulling them away from public health issues,” Garcia said. “But I do think there will be a lot of disappointment and a lot of discord if they don’t pass something.”

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