Policing Reform Negotiations Sputter in Congress Amid Partisan Bickering

WASHINGTON — Efforts to strike a bipartisan compromise on a national policing overhaul are teetering on the edge of a collapse in Congress, as yearlong negotiations threaten to break down under the weight of fraught ideological differences and a rapidly closing window for action.

After a Minneapolis jury in April found the white police officer who killed George Floyd guilty of murder, lawmakers in both parties were cautiously optimistic that the verdict would provide fresh momentum to break the impasse that had bedeviled negotiators since Mr. Floyd’s death. President Biden gave his support, too, calling on Congress to act by the first anniversary of the murder, in late May.

But that deadline has come and gone, and weeks after the verdict, negotiators are still at odds over the same roster of divisive issues, most notably whether to change criminal and civil penalties to make it easier to punish police officers for misconduct. Now, lawmakers working to break the stalemate and police lobbying groups involved in the talks are squabbling over a new proposal, and there remains no clear path to bridging their divides before a self-imposed deadline at the end of June.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do still,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Republicans’ lead emissary on the issue who had been taking a more upbeat tone as recently as last week. “The devil’s in the details, and we’re now meeting the devil.”

Mr. Scott and his Democratic counterparts — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Karen Bass of California — had hoped to be stitching up the final details of a rare bipartisan agreement right about now. The two sides repeatedly expressed optimism that they could merge competing proposals introduced last summer into a single bill to improve officer training, create a national database to track police misconduct, and make it easier for victims of misconduct to sue officers or their departments in court.

Instead, on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans found themselves trading veiled barbs over a written proposal circulated this week by Mr. Booker that appears to have only driven the two parties further apart and pitted powerful law enforcement groups against one another.

Democrats told their Republican counterparts that at least one such group, the Fraternal Order of Police, had lent its support to key provisions of the document, according to congressional aides familiar with the talks. The New York Times obtained a copy of the text.

The proposed measure would lower the threshold for the federal government to prosecute officers who commit egregious misconduct and violate an individual’s constitutional rights. It would also alter the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity to make it easier for victims or their families to sue police departments and municipalities, but not individual officers.

But rather than yielding a major breakthrough, Mr. Booker’s idea appeared to backfire. Republicans charged him with acting alone in an attempt to sway key policing interests in favor of an overly liberal bill. The more conservative National Sheriffs’ Association blasted its contents and began lobbying hard against it on Capitol Hill, and the Fraternal Order of Police quickly fired back.

“There ain’t no way in hell that’s going anywhere,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “The conversations we had about police reform were completely different than the document that was produced.”

Mr. Graham argued that the proposed changes to the criminal code would allow “the most liberal federal prosecutors” to ruin the lives of individual police officers who caused minor injuries like cuts and abrasions — a contention one Democratic aide dismissed as exaggeration. Republicans have been more supportive of making it easier for victims to sue departments and cities, but also took issue with how Mr. Booker had structured that change.

“If a union believes this is a good deal for cops, I’d be wanting my dues back if I were a cop,” Mr. Graham said, referring to the Fraternal Order of Police.

Jonathan Thompson, the executive director of the sheriffs’ group, said his members had “grave concerns” about the draft, “but remain open to the possibility that something balanced and reasonable is achievable.”

Jim Pasco, the F.O.P.’s executive director, unequivocally denied that the organization had weakened its standards for protecting officers and said that the group would not back legislation that did.

“We would never sell out our members for any reason,” he said in an interview.

In a knock on the National Sheriffs’ Association, Mr. Pasco added that the group “is often upset, and sometimes it is difficult to ascertain the exact reason for it.”

The public spasm of discontent underscored the delicate balancing act required to move forward. While the death of Mr. Floyd and the national protest movement it inspired helped drastically shift public opinion on matters of race and policing last summer, Republicans have also leaned heavily into political attacks that portray Democrats as the enemies of law enforcement, and themselves as its protectors.

Democrats badly want a deal but believe a final product that fails to make it easier to hold officers responsible for wrongdoing would not adequately respond to the racism they argue is coursing through American policing.

Thursday’s pessimism also broke the upbeat tone that has surrounded the talks for months. With lawmakers willing to divulge only the sparest of details from their talks, media reports have frequently exaggerated the extent of their progress, adding another layer of difficulty to getting a deal. Mr. Scott, Mr. Booker and Ms. Bass may not have helped. In an effort to create a sense of momentum, they have repeatedly told reporters they expect a breakthrough in a few days, or a week, or imminently. Each deadline has passed without a deal.

“We are days, but that could be 30 days or 25 days — who knows?” Mr. Booker said on Thursday, when pressed by reporters to account for conflicting assessments of when the group might reach a conclusion — if it can. “There’s a lot of work to be done in a very short period of time.”

Mr. Graham and other Republicans close to the talks insisted there was still reason for optimism. Mr. Booker, Mr. Scott and others involved in the discussions are set to meet next week with key law enforcement groups.

“There will be several versions of it,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma. “We’re still going to get it solved. I’m not worried about it.”

The current deadline, the end of June, would appear to be a firm breaking point, though. If negotiators cannot reach an agreement among themselves by then, they likely would not have enough time to gauge support among their parties more broadly and bring it to the floor for a lengthy debate and vote before Congress leaves town for a six-week summer recess. Once lawmakers are back, both sides agree the specter of midterm campaigning is likely to overwhelm any bipartisan good will on such a politically fraught issue.

“There is momentum for a deal,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network. “In fact, I would even call it desperation for a deal. But there are significant challenges ahead. I would just urge those who work on this and really want a deal and want to change laws and lives, don’t add to those obstacles.”

Negotiations on policing reform first fell apart last summer after Senate Republicans refused to take up Democrats’ expansive bill, named after Mr. Floyd, that would have curtailed qualified immunity, made it easier to prosecute misconduct, and placed direct mandates on police departments, including restrictions on deadly use of force. Democrats in turn blocked a Republican-led effort to pass more modest legislation led by Mr. Scott that encouraged departments to change their practices and included penalties for departments that did not restrict the use of chokeholds or require use of body cameras.