Government

Grassley, Ernst blast Democrats blocking their Justice Act, says public demands action on racial justice, policing

Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer appears at a Senate Finance
Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer appears at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on U.S. trade on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Moments before a key Senate vote on a Republican bill to incentivize changes in law enforcement, Sen. Chuck Grassley blasted Democrats who would block debate and questioned the minority party’s sincerity in addressing issues highlighted by recent deaths of Black men at the hands of police.

The Senate voted 55-45 against opening debate on the Justice Act that would address excessive use of force and racial discrimination by police. While the bill can be kept on the Senate agenda by the majority leader, the vote makes it less likely the Senate can reach agreement on a plan to overhaul law enforcement.

“George Floyd and countless others deserve the Senate action and consideration of the bill,” Grassley said.

The vote wasn’t final action on the bill, said Grassley, who like his fellow the Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst, is a co-sponsor of the Justice Act. By opening debate, Democrats could offer amendments and change the final outcome. If they didn’t like the final product, he added, Democrats could filibuster and block bringing the bill to the floor for final passage.

“The Senate is supposed to be a deliberative body,” but by blocking debate Democrats “want all the work on this to be done behind closed doors,” he said.

At a time when Americans are demonstrating peacefully, for the most part, Grassley said, Democrats are “game-playing.”

“A vote against (debate) shows the American people that politics are more important than people, talking points more important than change and gridlock more important than solutions,” he said.

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Ernst also called on Democrats to “put politics aside” to pass reforms to improver community safety.

“The Senate exists so we can debate these issues in a civil manner and reach a consensus so they aren’t resolved in the streets,” she said. “We can’t do that if the other side chooses to shut down meaningful debate. Are you willing to come to the table? Are you willing to accept that amendment process? Are you willing to take that first?”

A Morning Consult poll of 1,998 registered voters June 19-21 with a margin of error of 2 percent found that 87 percent favor mandating the use of body cameras, 84 percent favor de-escalation training, 82 percent support a national database of disciplinary records and 73 percent back using mental health experts to assist law enforcement.

The poll also found that 73 percent favor banning chokeholds while 57 percent favored discouraging, but not banning, the use of chokeholds.

The Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass a law enforcement reform package this week that includes many of the same measures in the Justice Act. Chief sponsor, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said the bills were 75 percent the same.

The Scott bill would have encouraged state and local police departments to change their tactics by penalizing departments that do not require the use of body cameras and by limiting the use of chokeholds. One hurdle for Democrats was that it did not change qualified immunity to shield law enforcement officers from lawsuits. Scott said he had been told President Donald Trump would not sign the legislation if it ended qualified immunity.

Two weeks ago, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed a law enforcement reform package that banned chokeholds except when a person has threatened or used deadly force, prohibited the hiring of an officer who had been fired or quit while being investigated for serious misconduct or convicted of a felony, and required officers to be instructed on de-escalation techniques and bias, and an understanding of and respect for diverse communities and the use of noncombative law enforcement methods in diverse communities. It also would allow the state attorney general to prosecute an officer whose actions result in a death.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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