Democrats Bank on Bill Sapping GOP’s ‘Defund the Police’ Attacks

The head of the House Democratic campaign arm said legislation aimed at reducing excessive use of force by law enforcement will blunt Republican attempts to tie vulnerable Democrats to a movement to reduce police department funding.

The “defund the police” slogan has provided new ammunition for the GOP, which has sought to connect Democrats from districts President Donald Trump carried or narrowly lost in 2016 to the more progressive ideas in their caucus.

“House Democrats introduced common sense legislation, and the American people overwhelming support it,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.

“Our legislation doesn’t have the word ‘defund’ in it,” Bustos added. “It’s another phony argument from Republicans.”

Photographer: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) says Democrats can counter GOP messaging on policing issues.

The legislation (H.R. 7120) released by Democrats last week is being marked up in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. House leaders plan to bring it to floor this month, but it’s unlikely to advance in the Senate.

House leaders quickly pushed back on a call from the party’s more progressive wing to “defund the police,” a phrase progressive Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) say refers to diverting some money to social programs such as education, mental health and addiction treatment — not essentially disbanding departments as the slogan suggests.

But that definition isn’t being relayed by Republicans, who swiftly began targeting Democrats on it, especially after the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to replace the police department with a new public safety model.

On June 7, Trump tweeted that former Vice President Joe Biden and Democrats want to “defund the police,” a claim Biden’s campaign shot down by the next day. By then, though, the House and Senate Republican campaign arms were already questioning where Democrats stood on the issue.

Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused Democrats in a June 12 statement of “gaslighting” the meaning of “defund the police.” He said in a statement to Bloomberg Government that “House Democrats have become the insane partisans they promised voters they’d run out of Washington.”

After Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) posed at a rally with a protester holding a “defund the police” sign, his GOP challenger Sean Parnell said Lamb “embodies the most radical elements of his party.”

Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican challenging Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), tweeted that the freshman lawmaker’s participation in a protest with his family “is a slap in the faces of #NYPD men and women who protect our families & city.”

The Democrats’ bill contained a number of policies with broad support, according to a Reuters poll. However, an ABC News/Ipsos poll done around the same time found 64% of Americans didn’t support defunding the police, and 60% didn’t support reducing police department funding even if the money was shifted to mental health, housing and education programs.

Rose, Lamb and other moderate Democrats facing tough re-elections have clarified that they don’t support any efforts to decrease funding for police departments. The bill Democrats aim to pass through the House before the month end should help reaffirm that, said Bustos, who is among the Trump-district Democrats targeted on the issue by the NRCC.

Photo by Al Drago/Bloomberg
Tim Scott (R-S.C.) took the lead on assembling the Senate GOP’s proposal.

Room for Agreement

The issue of policing is personal to Bustos, whose husband is a county sheriff in Illinois.

“We have had a lot of conversations about this,” Bustos said. “I talk to both police officers and those in the Black Lives Matter movement. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the good cops and the people in the Black Lives Matter movement who want to see real change.”

The Democrats’ bill lacks a single Republican signature, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump was widely panned by Democrats on Tuesday, and Senate Republicans released their own bill Wednesday. At a news conference announcing that legislation, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) applied pressure to Democrats to allow it to proceed, “so that we can actually have a robust debate about how to make the legislation better and serve the American people.”

There is some bipartisan agreement, including dissuading the use of chokeholds. But just how far to go from a federal level remains a dividing line and will test the parties’ ability to compromise, as both sides appear to be digging in.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said Democrats want to “federalize all of these issues,” which he called a “non-starter.” And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that the Senate GOP’s proposal “does not rise to the moment.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that Trump’s executive order “falls far short.” And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) used the GOP’s latest attack line in a statement following the release of the Senate Republican bill.

“While Democrats threaten to defund the police and push bills that will make our officers less safe, Republicans understand that real change will only be achieved when we improve community-law enforcement relationships and help our hardworking cops carry out their duties,” McCarthy said.

Even if legislation isn’t passed, Bustos said voters won’t forget the image of protesters outside the White House being cleared for a Trump photo op — nor the silence from many Republican lawmakers after the incident.

“We are confident the American people will pick common sense police reform over gassing peaceful protesters,” Bustos said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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