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March 4, 2021, 2:56 p.m. EST

House passes sweeping bill to overhaul policing

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Cheered on by President Joe Biden, House Democrats hustled Wednesday to pass the most ambitious effort in decades to overhaul policing nationwide, able to avoid clashing with moderates in their own party who are wary of reigniting a debate they say hurt them during last fall’s election.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was approved by a 220-212 vote late Wednesday.

The sweeping legislation, which was first approved last summer but stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, was named in honor of Floyd, whose killing by police in Minnesota last Memorial Day sparked protests nationwide. The bill would ban chokeholds and “qualified immunity” for law enforcement and create national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability.

“My city is not an outlier, but rather an example of the inequalities our country has struggled with for centuries,” said Ilhan Omar, a congressional Democrat who represents an area near where Floyd died in Minneapolis. She asked her colleagues if they would “have the moral courage to pursue justice and secure meaningful change?”

Also: House approves massive voting and ethics bill over GOP opposition

Democrats say they were determined to pass the bill a second time, to combat police brutality and institutional racism after the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans during interactions with law enforcement — images of which were sometimes jarringly captured on video. Those deaths drew a national and international outcry and sparked long-running protests across the country even amid a raging public health emergency.

Floyd’s family watched the emotional debate Wednesday from a nearby House office building.

But the debate over legislation has turned into a political liability for Democrats as Republicans again seized on calls by some activists and progressives to “defund the police” to argue that Democrats were intent on slashing police-force budgets. This bill doesn’t do that, nor have most Democrats called for it.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said it was a reason the party, after talking confidently of growing its House majority in November, instead saw it shrink to just 10 seats, 221-211. “We played too much defense on ‘defund the police,’ ” Perez said.

Moderate Democrats said the charge helped drive Democratic defeats in swing districts around the country.

“No one ran on ‘defund the police,’ but all you have to do is make that a political weapon,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Texas Democrat who has pushed for more police funding in places like his city of Laredo, where the law-enforcement presence is especially concentrated given the close proximity to the Mexican border.

While Democrats used their then-larger majority to pass the police reform measure in the House last summer, it stalled in the Mitch McConnell–led Senate, where GOP senators pushed an alternate plan that Democrats blocked from consideration, calling it inadequate. Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, but it seems unlikely the bill could pass the Senate without substantial changes to win GOP support.

The bill had been set for a vote Thursday, but House leaders abruptly changed the schedule to wrap up their week’s work after U.S. Capitol Police warned of threats of violence at the Capitol complex two months after the Jan. 6 siege.

Read: Police uncover possible militia plot to breach Capitol this week

Senior Democratic congressional aides said Wednesday they were eager to get the bill to the Senate, where negotiations will take longer.

Republicans quickly revived the “defund the police” criticisms. “Our law-enforcement officers need more funding not less,” Rep. Scott Fitzgerald of Wisconsin said during Wednesday’s debate.

Key Words (June 2020): John Oliver explains ‘defund the police’ — and why it doesn’t mean ‘no police’

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