Tim Scott is pivotal figure as Tyre Nichols beating rekindles talk of police reform

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Presidential politics are hanging over efforts to rekindle police reform in Congress after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in Memphis.

The lead Republican negotiator in the talks, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), is widely believed to be exploring a presidential bid, and Republican strategists warn any deal with Democrats could set him back.

Senate Republicans are expecting Scott, the only Black member of the conference, to take the lead in negotiating with Democrats after he spent months during the last Congress trying to hammer out a police reform deal with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

GOP aides and strategists are doubtful that any reform deal can be passed by Congress that won’t become a political liability for Scott, given demands by Democrats to open individual police officers to personal legal liability for alleged misconduct.

That’s a potential concern for Scott, who is viewed as a top prospect to become the GOP’s vice presidential nominee if he doesn’t win the presidential nomination.

Scott has to be careful he doesn’t sign off on a sweeping reform bill that puts him at odds with the Republican base, something that happened to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) after he endorsed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.

“I see this as something that can turn into a Gang of Eight situation for Tim Scott in the way that it did for Marco Rubio,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. He was referring to the bipartisan negotiating group that agreed to create a pathway to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for tougher border security and other reforms.

Political experts, however, say that Scott could boost his national profile ahead of a presidential run by achieving a legislative breakthrough on an issue that rose to prominence after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The clamor for reform has grown more intense after authorities released graphic videos Friday night that showed police beating Nichols. Five police officers face criminal charges for the incident.

“There’s reason to think he would be serious about and he would be looking for a way to maybe package what we’re calling police reform with a larger law enforcement package that might include a lot more money for training,” Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said of Scott.

Smith said if Scott “is looking for a niche in what is likely to be long list of Republican candidates” running for president, “this might be it.”

He acknowledged that “there’s a pretty serious risk” for Scott if he cuts a major police reform deal with Democrats, but argued he has to balance that potential downside with the need to break out in what could be a crowded presidential primary field.

“The question is whether or not there’s a place for him in the contest for the presidency without distinguishing himself in some way,” Smith said. “Maybe this would be a way he could do that.”

Scott declined to comment when asked about police reform Monday afternoon.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said Monday that he expects Scott to again take the lead in any potential talks but raised doubts whether Democrats would agree to anything that most Republicans could support.

“He did a lot of good work the last time around until the Democrats torpedoed it,” he said.

GOP senators are already warning that Democrats shouldn’t expect Scott to make any big concessions beyond the legislation he introduced in 2020 to end the use of chokeholds, increase the use of body cameras and provide more federal resources to hire and train new officers.

“Tim Scott proposed an incredible bill … and frankly Democrats turned it down,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a centrist who has worked with Democrats on other issues. “Tim had a great bill, they wouldn’t accept it.

“We can go back to Tim Scott’s bill,” Cassidy said, asserting that some of the demands being made by Democrats are “disingenuous.”

Cassidy said there might be a better chance of striking a deal on police reform in a nonelection year, before next year’s presidential politics scuttle any chance of getting something done.

“We’re in the first year of a two-year cycle and sometimes people actually look at policy as opposed to have an eye toward politics, and maybe that will change” the dynamic of the talks, he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Monday floated the idea of protecting individual police officers from lawsuits but making police departments liable for misconduct, an idea he raised two years ago during the final stretch of police reform negotiations.

“I oppose civil lawsuits against individual officers,” Graham posted on Twitter. “However, holding police departments accountable makes sense and they should face liability for the misconduct of their officers.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership, noted that Senate negotiators discussed this possible compromise two years ago and it didn’t go anywhere.

The Texas senator predicted that police reform has less chance of passing now that Republicans control the House than it did in the last Congress, when there was a Democratic House majority.

“I think it’s probably less likely to happen now with divided government,” he said.

A senior Democratic aide said any police reform bill that has a chance to get to President Biden’s desk will likely have to originate in the Senate, given that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) didn’t show much interest in passing a comprehensive bill in the last Congress.

Only one House Republican voted for the sweeping George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March of 2021.

The House passed four other crime- and policing-related bills with varying bipartisan support in September.

They were the Invest to Protect Act, to provide federal grants to small law enforcement agencies; the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, to provide grants for community violence initiatives; the Mental Health Justice Act, to train and assign mental health professionals to situations with people suffering mental health crises; and the VICTIM Act, to give local investigators more access to crime-solving technology.

The biggest accomplishment on the police reform front in the last Congress was passage of the Law Enforcement De-Escalation Training Act of 2022, which Biden signed into law in late December.

It provided $124 million in grant funding to pay for law enforcement agencies to develop new curricula for officers.

Cornyn on Monday said these types of reforms only work when police officers follow their de-escalation training, something that didn’t happen in Memphis the night Nichols died.

He said the de-escalation tactics funded by the bill, which he cosponsored, “if used, would have avoided this tragic result.”

“We talked about the George Floyd Act for a couple years and [de-escalation training bill] was the only thing we could come to agreement on so I don’t know what other options are on the table,” he said, dismissing the chances of passing a broader police reform bill.

Mychael Schnell contributed.

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