WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris’ bill to make lynching a federal crime almost became law. Now, it’s caught in a political tug-of-war over police reform.
The California Democrat’s legislation, cosponsored by the Senate’s other two Black members, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, previously passed the Senate twice by unanimous agreement. A nearly identical bill later easily passed the House. But minor changes in that version — including a different name — required re-passage in the Senate, where it was blocked by GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Now, the legislation is part of efforts to reform law enforcement in the wake of protests over police brutality. Senate Republicans have incorporated it in their version of a policing package, which Democrats say doesn’t go far enough. They are pledging to block it by filibustering, holding out for more negotiations at the risk of nothing passing into law.
“It’s like asking a mother, save one of your children and leave the others,” Harris said Tuesday in response to a Republican senator’s suggestion that she was blocking her own bill by objecting to the overall GOP proposal.
Harris’ bill would make lynching a federal crime, something Congress has refused to do for more than 100 years.
Paul, who was not present when the Senate approved the measure in February 2019, says the definition for lynching in the bill is too broad and would include an assault such as slapping someone, an argument Harris has dismissed as spurious.
Harris is also a coauthor of Democrats’ version of the broader police reform legislation, offered in response to the national outcry over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Ky.
The anti-lynching bill is included in Democrats’ legislation. It would also ban no-knock warrants like the one police used to burst into Taylor’s home, and prohibit carotid holds and choke holds that can cut off someone’s air, such as what a Minneapolis police officer did to Floyd.
In addition, the Democrats’ version would require a higher standard before police are authorized to use force, make it easier to hold officers personally accountable for misconduct and beef up investigations of police departments. It is expected to easily pass the Democratic-controlled House this week.
It stands no chance in the Republican-held Senate, however. Senate Republicans’ version, developed with Scott, takes a far narrower approach. Instead of banning choke holds, for example, it would offer incentives to police departments to enact their own bans. It would require police departments to report to the federal government on the use of no-knock warrants, but would not ban them.
Although they lack the votes to pass their version, Democrats have the numbers to block the Republican bill from going forward. That’s what they’re doing, arguing there should be a bipartisan process to craft a reform measure.
“We cannot answer (protesters’) demands with this Republican attempt to obstruct real progress and real justice in our country,” Harris said on the Senate floor. “The Republican bill has been thrown out to give lip service to an issue with nothing substantial in it that would actually save or would have saved any of those lives.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Harris if she realized the GOP bill included her anti-lynching measure.
“The same one that Rand Paul obstructed a couple weeks ago? Yes, I am aware of that,” she replied.
Harris’ press secretary, Meaghan Lynch, said in a statement, “If Republicans were serious about making lynching a crime, they could vote on Sen. Harris’ stand-alone legislation today.”
Democrats are engaged in “mindless obstruction” by blocking the GOP bill, Cornyn told reporters later. “I’m not really all that interested in negotiating with hostage takers.”
But Democrats say Republicans are being disingenuous, with Harris labeling the GOP bill “a distraction” from real reform.
“For all the pundits out there that want to entertain a conversation about whether Democrats actually want police reform: Are you kidding me?” Harris said.
“We have proposed a prescription that actually responds to not just (protesters’) demands but the specific cases and the bodies that have just most recently been buried, much less the generations of Black bodies that have been buried because of this issue,” she said. “So don’t anyone dare suggest that we are standing in the way of progress.”