Biden can prove he wants unity

By Marc A. Thiessen

The guilty verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial give President Joe Biden a once-in-a-presidency opportunity to deliver on his promise of unity and bipartisanship. To seize it, he should immediately call Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and offer to work with him to pass bipartisan police reform legislation.

After the murder of George Floyd last summer, Scott wanted to bring Republicans and Democrats together to get something done on police reform. As a Black man who had experienced police discrimination, he did not want to let the moment pass without bipartisan action. So he introduced the Justice Act and incorporated a number of Democratic proposals into his legislation, including making lynching a federal hate crime, creating a national policing commission to conduct a review of the U.S. criminal justice system, collecting data on police use of force, barring the use of chokeholds by federal officers, withholding federal funds to state and local law enforcement agencies that do not similarly bar chokeholds and withholding funds to police departments that fail to report to the Justice Department when no-knock warrants are used.

Scott’s bill could have been the basis of bipartisan compromise. But five months away from a presidential election, Democrats were not interested in bipartisanship. Rather than work with Scott, Democratic leaders attacked him. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called Scott’s bill a “token, halfhearted approach.” (Durbin apologized for using the word “token” after Scott said it “hurts my soul.”) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Scott’s bill was “trying to get away with murder, actually. The murder of George Floyd.”

Despite these shameful personal attacks, Scott still tried to reach across the aisle. At his urging, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered to allow unlimited amendments, and Scott promised to help filibuster his own bill if Democrats did not get votes they sought. He even told his Democratic colleagues that he would vote to support some of their amendments to improve the bill, such as expanding the definition of chokeholds and collecting data not just on serious bodily injury and death but on all uses of force by police. With Scott on board, many of those Democratic amendments would have gotten enough Republican support to pass. And if the final result was still not satisfactory, Democrats would have had another chance to improve the bill further in negotiations with the House.

But instead of taking Scott’s outstretched hand, Senate Democrats voted to filibuster his bill — using the very tool they now dismiss as a Jim Crow relic to stop a Black senator from moving forward with police reform. “I had some painful conversations,” Scott told me last summer, “with some friends who I respect on the other side of the aisle that basically said that they were shut down during [Democratic] conference meetings. One said that 12 people stood up and said, ‘We should vote on Tim Scott’s bill and, frankly, we should quit demonizing the bill.’” That would have been enough to overcome a filibuster. But in the end only three members of the Democratic caucus – Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Doug Jones, D-Ala. – voted to advance Scott’s bill, killing any chance of passing police reform.

Now the Chauvin verdict has created an opportunity for Biden to change that. During the campaign, Biden pledged that as president he would work “across the aisle to reach consensus.” Well, here is his chance. Just as President George W. Bush reached out to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to pass bipartisan education reform, Biden should reach out to Scott to work with him on bipartisan police reform. He should insist that Senate Democrats bring the bill he negotiates with Scott – not a Democratic substitute – to the floor and pass it with a filibuster-proof bipartisan majority. He should call on House Democrats to support the compromise he reaches with Scott. And he should invite Scott and other Republicans to the White House, so he can sign the bill into law surrounded by leaders of both parties.

After his election, Biden declared that the “refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another, it’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make.” If Biden makes a choice not to cooperate at this moment, on this issue, then his inaugural promise to put his “whole soul” into uniting our country was nothing more than a lie.

By Patricia Older