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What could Congress actually accomplish on police reform?

The guilty verdicts for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd felt like an important moment, creating momentum to change the way police interact with Black Americans.

The specific nature of that progress, however, is very much yet to be determined, particularly on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans are actually working together to find a compromise piece of legislation.

What Matters turned to CNN’s Jessica Dean, who covers Congress, to get her front-row assessment of what’s been proposed, what a compromise could look like, what it would actually accomplish and whether any issue can get Democrats and Republicans to vote for the same thing.

Her emailed thoughts are below:

What police reform is being proposed on Capitol Hill?

WHAT MATTERS: Police are governed at the local level, but the killing of Black Americans by police officers is a national crisis. What exactly would the current legislative proposals do to address this problem?

DEAN: In short, lawmakers are still trying to figure out exactly what the final legislation would look like. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House back in March. That bill bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants and eliminates qualified immunity. It would also set up a national registry of police misconduct to stop officers from moving from place to place. And it would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state and local level. But in order to pass in the Senate, there will have to be changes made to this bill. Which gets us to our next question …

Why is there hope police reform could pass when so many other bills are blocked?

WHAT MATTERS: The House passed the George Floyd Act, but it would take 10 Republican senators to overcome a filibuster. Is there any indication 10 Republican senators could support a police reform bill?

DEAN: Yes, and here’s why. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the lead Senate Republican taking part in these talks, has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Scott also holds a lot of sway with his fellow Republican members on this issue. One source told me he’s been reaching out to other Republican senators and they have been “supportive.” McConnell told me “of course” he was supportive of Scott’s efforts. So, it’s possible.

Related: GOP senator floats compromise on policing legislation

What is “qualified immunity” and why is it the main sticking point?

WHAT MATTERS: A key issue dividing lawmakers is “qualified immunity.” What is it and is there any room for compromise?

DEAN: Qualified immunity is a legal defense used in civil cases that critics say shields officers from accountability and defenders argue protects officers’ ability to make quick decisions in dangerous situations. This issue is a key sticking point. Sen. Scott has proposed a compromise which would allow police departments or employers to be sued but not the individual officer. Rep. Karen Bass, who authored the House bill and is another key player in the discussions with Scott and the Senate, told me yesterday officers and departments should both be held accountable. So they’re still not on the same page there.

Would any of these federal proposals have stopped the violence we’ve seen recently?

WHAT MATTERS: Floyd was suffocated to death. Daunte Wright was shot. Would anything in these bills have been able to stop those deaths? If not, what do supporters say federal legislation would accomplish?

DEAN: Again we have to wait to see exactly what is in the final legislation. But Scott and Bass, along with Sen. Cory Booker, the lead Senate Democrat in these talks, all agree policing needs to be overhauled in this country. And they all say lives will be saved as a result. The specific elements might not address each of the instances of police violence we’ve seen, but they would certainly change policing in the US.

Aside from qualified immunity, the key areas in the House bill include:

  • Installing a national chokehold ban
  • Installing a national no-knock warrants ban
  • Banning racial and religious profiling
  • Creating a national database of police misconduct
  • Grants for police training
  • Finally implementing anti-lynching legislation

What could convince Republicans to vote for this?

WHAT MATTERS: Republicans signed on to sentencing reform under pressure from former President Donald Trump. What pressure could be applied on them today?

DEAN: A number of Senate Republicans have said they’re open to supporting legislation overhauling policing. There is no question the events of the past year, and even the past few weeks and months, have created a sense of urgency which is not something we see that often in the Senate. It’s also not an election year so people may be willing to truly negotiate. It all comes down to what Scott, Booker and Bass hammer out. What is a palatable compromise to all parties that can get 60 votes?

This is a story that seems to be repeating itself, no?

WHAT MATTERS: The story is similar on a number of issues — climate change, infrastructure, immigration, gun control, voting rights. Does it seem right now like there could be breakthroughs on any of these?

DEAN: We wrote a story on this very question because at this point to get almost any of that done, you need 60 votes in the Senate, which demands bipartisan support. And it’s no secret that’s a tall order right now.

Democrats can use reconciliation to pass infrastructure without any Republican support and that may be the route they take. But on things like gun control or voting rights, there is going to have to be compromise to get to 60, which means everyone is giving up something to get a deal done. It’s a very steep uphill climb.

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