U.S. House passes police reform bill, but it's unlikely to get through Republican senators

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a sweeping police overhaul from Democrats, responding to a national outcry over George Floyd's death.

Donald Trump has already said he will veto the bill if it passes in the Senate

Demonstrators calling to defund police march in Washington on June 19. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

House Democrats approved a far-reaching police overhaul Thursday evening in a vote heavy with emotion and symbolism as a divided Congress struggles to address the global outcry over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gathered earlier Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to challenge Congress not to allow the deaths to have been in vain or the outpouring of public support for law enforcement changes to go unmatched. But the collapse of a Senate Republican bill leaves final legislation in doubt.

"Exactly one month ago, George Floyd spoke his final words — 'I can't breathe' — and changed the course of history," Pelosi said.

She said the Senate faces a choice "to honour George Floyd's life or to do nothing."

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is perhaps the most ambitious set of proposed changes to police procedures and accountability in decades. Backed by the country's leading civil rights groups, it aims to match the moment of demonstrations that filled streets across the U.S. But it has almost zero chance of becoming law.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is joined by Democrats at a a news conference outside the Capitol building in Washington on Thursday. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

On the eve of the vote, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration signaled he would veto the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also said it would not pass the Republican-held chamber.

After the Republican policing bill stalled on Wednesday, blocked by Democrats, Trump shrugged.

"If nothing happens with it, it's one of those things," he said. "We have different philosophies."

Congress is now at a familiar impasse despite polling that shows Americans overwhelmingly want changes after the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in interactions with law enforcement. The two parties are instead making the case to voters that they should decide on their priorities ahead of November's election, a vote that will determine control of the House, Senate and White House.

"We hear you. We see you. We are you," Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said during the debate.

It has been a month since Floyd's death sparked a global reckoning over police tactics and racial injustice. Since then, funeral services were held for Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot and killed by police in Atlanta. Thursday is also what would have been the 18th birthday of Tamir Rice, a Black boy killed in Ohio in 2014.

Lawmakers who have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic were summoned to the Capitol for an emotional, hours-long debate. Dozens voted by proxy under new pandemic rules.

Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said hundreds of thousands of people "in every state in the union" are marching to make sure Floyd "will not be just another Black man dead at the hands of the police."

Protesters call for the arrest of Louisville police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, on the steps of the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., earlier this month. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Republican lawmakers countered that the bill goes too far and failed to include Republican input. "All lives matter," said Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko. Rep. Pete King said it's time to stand with law enforcement, the "men and women in blue." House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy decried the "mob" of demonstrators.

At one point, Georgia Republican Rep. Barry Loudermilk stood up to say he just didn't understand what was happening in the country — from Floyd's death to the protests that followed. Several Black Democratic lawmakers rose to encourage him to pick up a U.S. history book or watch some of the many films now streaming about the Black experience in the U.S.

In the stalemate over the policing overhaul, the parties are settled into their political zones, almost ensuring no legislation will become law. While there may be shared outrage over Floyd's death, lawmakers remain far apart on the broader debate over racial bias in policing and other institutions. The 236-181 House vote was largely on party lines.

Bills share common elements

Both bills share common elements that could be grounds for a compromise. They would create a national database of use-of-force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures. The Democratic bill goes much further, mandating many of those changes while also revising federal statutes for police misconduct and holding officers personally liable for damages in lawsuits.

Democrats are trying to force Republicans to the negotiating table. The two bills, the House and Senate versions, would ultimately need to be the same to become law.

Neither bill calls for police defunding

Neither bill goes as far as some activists want with calls to defund the police and shift resources to other community services.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, who drafted the Republican package, said the bill is now "closer to the trash can than it's ever been."

"I'm frustrated," he said on Fox News Channel.

An image of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, is hung above people taking part in a protest to defund the police in Manhattan on Thursday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Scott insisted he was open to amending his bill with changes proposed by Democrats. But Democrats doubted McConnell, the Senate majority leader, would allow a thorough debate, and they instead blocked the Republican bill.

Senate Democrats believe Senate Republicans will face mounting public pressure to open negotiations and act. But ahead of the November election, that appears uncertain.