Law enforcement funding package divides Democrats ahead of midterm elections

WASHINGTON — Legislation to increase funding for local police departments has run into trouble on Capitol Hill amid deep Democratic divisions, as progressives balk at directing more money to law enforcement and moderate calls to action that could blunt Republican efforts to portray them as soft on crime ahead of the midterm elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged for weeks to introduce a package of bills that would provide funds to hire more police officers, raise salaries, invest in officer safety and training and body cameras, as well as mental health resources for officers.

But the measures, championed by vulnerable Democrats in conservative-leaning districts, became mired in a years-long infighting over crime policy, leaving the party unresponsive to Republican attacks and some of its furious members.

“I’ve heard a whole host of reasons people want to excuse inaction,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, who is in a tough re-election race in a competitive district that includes suburban Richmond, and is a leading proponent of legislation. “The kind of all-out apology – I’ve heard it a lot. Tomorrow it’s going to be ‘It’s raining’.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who lobbied successfully for the package to include measures to strengthen accountability for police misconduct, also pushed to move forward.

A caucus spokesperson said the issue remains a priority for the group.

Still, a small group of progressives have so far refused to support the legislation, leaving Democrats short of the votes they would need to introduce it. Democratic leaders in the House do not want to expose their party’s divisions at a time when the political map looks more favorable to them than just months ago. So Ms Pelosi has delayed announcing any votes, as lawmakers continue discussions with those who decline their support.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has positioned herself as the main obstacle to the legislation, arguing that it would provide a blank check to police departments.

“The answer is not just to invest more money,” Ms Jayapal said. “I’m not sure it has a chance of moving forward, given all the challenges around it.”

Due to the narrow majority of Democrats in the House, opposition from Ms Jayapal and just three other Liberals would be enough to prevent it from proceeding to a vote. Talks between her, moderate Democrats and party leaders were continuing on Monday, according to a person familiar with the negotiations, with some still hoping for an eventual breakthrough.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and Majority Leader, pushed for a vote on the measure this week, the person said.

Yet time is running out for Democrats to act ahead of the midterm elections, in which Republicans have once again made crime a major tack. With the legislation languishing, vulnerable Democrats are losing political potential by passing a pro-police bill. There is little time before November to campaign on such a vote or to produce an advertisement attempting to claim credit.

Republicans have tried for years to portray Democrats as soft on crime and bent on defunding the police — a mantra many progressives have embraced amid a string of high-profile cases of excessive violence by security forces. order, especially against people of color.

Republican criticism has increased at election time, including in recent weeks, as gas prices have fallen and the party has sought other ways to tarnish Democrats in the eyes of suburban voters, such as shine a light on the dysfunctional immigration system and the continued toll of inflation. .

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Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald J. Trump called the Democrats a “party of crime,” even as crime rates rose in cities with leaders from both political parties. Since 2019, murders have increased by almost 40% and violent crimes, including shootings and other assaults, have increased overall.

The drama now unfolding is the latest chapter in a long-running fight over the issue between Democrats. After the party’s disappointing results in the 2020 midterm elections, as Democrats bickered internally over what was wrong, Ms Spanberger privately expressed frustration about fellow progressives who had embraced the movement “defund the police,” arguing that Democrats needed to push back much more forcefully against Republican efforts to caricature them as anti-law enforcement.

At the time, progressives, including Ms Jayapal, angrily dismissed the criticism, arguing that they had helped transform the party’s liberal base by addressing the issues that drove core supporters, including people of color, allowing Democrats to hold a majority in the House.

Those pushing to pass the legislation this year argue it goes beyond politics and would make communities safer by helping police departments focus on community-focused approaches. And they tried to address general Democrat concerns about including meaningful police accountability measures.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, introduced the Invest to Protect Act, which would direct the Justice Department to provide grants to local or tribal governments with fewer than 200 law enforcement officers to improve the recruiting, buying body cameras and ensuring de-escalation. coaching.

“We need to make it clear to the country that we are a party that is tough on crime and supports protecting our communities and those who do it,” Gottheimer said.

Mr. Hoyer said in a recent letter to Democrats that the House would be “ready to consider” the legislation this month.

“Democrats are not for defunding the police,” Hoyer told reporters, adding that party members had voted to defund the police. “We voted for this in the last budget, the previous budget and every budget since I’ve been here to make sure law enforcement has the resources they need.”

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, are also pushing for passage of the legislation, saying additional police funding should be coupled with accountability measures.

“A wealth of evidence supports the fact that certain preventative measures, such as violence prevention programs and other community investments, can significantly improve safety outcomes,” the organization wrote in a letter to leaders. Democrats last month.

But with the legislative calendar shrinking, many urges for action said they remained skeptical there was a real effort to move forward.

“I keep hearing leaders say, ‘We really want to bring in these bills,'” Ms Spanberger said. “And even.”

Democrats had originally hoped to vote on the police defunding bills over the summer and planned to pair them with legislation banning assault weapons passed in July, before lawmakers left Washington for their August holidays. But when disagreements emerged over accountability measures in police bills, Ms Pelosi opted to move forward with an assault weapons ban and review law enforcement. the law in the fall.

Now the House is back, but the issue of police funding is still unresolved.

Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, Democrat of New York, said she recognizes the need for additional police funding, but still has reservations that the measures lack sufficient accountability measures for police forces. the order, which she described as “a tacit acceptance of abusive behavior”.

“It’s important that we have the staff in place to make sure our cities are safe,” Ms Clarke said. “We also need to make sure the proper training is in place, so that communities of color feel like they’re in partnership with their police departments.”

jonathan martin contributed report.

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