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Lankford accuses Democrats of putting politics over police reform

The GOP version of a police reform bill stalled in the Senate Wednesday, after Democrats said it didn’t go far enough. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, one of the Republicans who worked on the bill, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his “great frustration” that the legislation won't move forward, its specific provisions regarding chokeholds and qualified immunity and the rise of COVID-19 in his state.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the Republican version of a police reform bill stalled in the Senate today, after Democrats said it did not go far enough.

    To talk about that and what comes next, I'm joined by Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. He is one of the Republicans who worked on the bill.

    Senator Lankford, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We have seen protests in thousands of cities and towns across the country after the death of George Floyd, almost all of them calling for police reform. But when it comes to Washington, it fails. What happened?

  • Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.:

    It's a great frustration today.

    Speaker Pelosi in the House put together a bill that they want to have as police reform. We pulled together a bill from the Senate side to have police reform. The Senate rules are very different than the House. Obviously, the majority in the House can put whatever bill they want to. It doesn't have to be bipartisan. In the Senate, it does.

    And so the way that we manage that is, before we get on a bill, you have to have 60 votes. Then you amend it. Once all the amendments are done, you have another 60 votes to make sure both sides are heard. And then you actually pass it with 51 votes.

    So, today was a procedural vote to say, we brought 15 different items altogether to be able to start the debate. We want to be able to open it up, open it up for amendments, and to say, let's amend it until we're done. And then, when we're done, and we all agree that we're done on amending it, then we can move to final passage.

    Democrats today said, no, we want to do the Pelosi bill, or not do a bill at all. And that was the frustration that we had, and the surprise, quite frankly, of Republicans, because we had quite a few items that are in this bill that are very similar to the bill from Speaker Pelosi, things like ending choke holds, increasing dramatically the use of body-worn cameras, increasing transparency, getting additional reporting from all over the country.

    So, there's a lot of things that are in it, including additional training and things that are similar. So, it was a surprise they didn't want to even try to amend it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, several things to pick up on there, Senator.

    Senator Kamala Harris called it — quote — "crumbs on the table." Democrats are saying it didn't go far enough in terms of banning choke holds, banning no-knock warrants, that it didn't address this very sensitive issue of qualified immunity.

    So, there really was distance between Democrats and Republicans on this, on this legislation.

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    So, I'd say, about 70 percent of it, we have wide agreement on. Thirty percent of it, we don't.

    But the thing is, in the Senate, you open it up for debate. There were 20 amendment options that were allowed to say, let's have up to 20 amendments on this. And they said, no, we don't want to even amend it. We don't want to discuss it. We want to only do the one that's in the House.

    That's the problem that we dig into on this. So it's become a political issue, more than anything else. Quite frankly, we do ban choke holds on it. We just do it a different way. Choke holds can only be banned for federal folks, obviously. Then you have to be able to take funds away in other ways, because we don't have jurisdiction to be able to tell what a local police department can do.

    So, we ban one type of funding. They ban another type of funding on it, but it has the exact same result. So, it's always seemed odd to me for them to say, you don't ban choke holds, when we certainly do.

    We don't get into the issue of qualified immunity. You're correct. We want to be able to hold police officers criminally accountable. If they do something criminal, they end up in prison, just like anyone else who violates a crime.

    The whole issue about qualified immunity is, after they have had a criminal offense, then we're also going to go back to their family and to take away their home and to take away their pension away from their family after the police officer is in prison.

    We think there's a better way to be able to provide accountability to the police department, where that individual faces criminal penalties on it, but it may not also civilly punish their family as well.

    So we just have a disagreement on…


  • Sen. James Lankford:

    … to solve it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me, Senator.

    Weren't there — aren't there Democrats — Senator Braun of Indiana, for example, says he's prepared to look at this issue qualified immunity. Senator Lindsey Graham said he's prepared to look at it.

    You have other Democrats saying, we're prepared to sit down and negotiate, but we weren't even involved. We weren't asked to be involved by Republicans when this was drawn up.

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    Actually, that'd be kind of peculiar, because there was a lot of conversation about this.

    We still go back to the same thing. When Speaker Pelosi pulled together her bill in the House, she certainly didn't include Republicans in that conversation. We're pulling together a proposal from the Senate, which we actually did have multiple conversations with multiple Democrats in the process, and pulled items from the Democrats' bill from the House as well to be able to include in this one.

    So, it ends up being a political game that people get very frustrated with, because, from the outside, it says, why can't we make progress? Quite frankly, today, we were very frustrated as well, because we blocked off this week and next week to be able to open up the bill to amendments and changes.

    And anything that they want to be able to — excuse me — anything that they want to be able to add to it or to be able to make changes on, we're welcome to be able to engage in debate it, put it on the floor and let's discuss it. That's why we blocked off two weeks' time.

    But, as of today, they said, no, they don't want to even debate it. That's the frustrating part to say, there's a lot on the table on body cams and everything else where we have wide agreement on. Let's at least move on what we can agree on and then keep going.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator, what do you say to Americans looking at all this and asking, where does this go? Is it — is it dead?

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    I hope it is not.

    There was a movement to move to the National Defense Authorization, which is also an important. That was what was scheduled originally this week and next week. Speaker McConnell moved that to the end of July. But since this failed, it just got moved back up again.

    That means the next time we can take up this bill is now in the end of July to be able to deal with this. So, our hope was to have this done by July the Fourth. The House is coming back into session for a couple days at the end of this month. We were hoping to be able to get this out, have the House version passed, to be able to conference it, and, before we get to July the Fourth, to be done with this portion of it.

    We think the American people want to see progress in this. And this was the time to do it. For whatever reason, the Democrats are now saying, as of the end of the day today, they want to go back to committee. They want to have multiple hearings.

    And that delays this process significantly again. So, not only could we not good debate on the floor on it today. If they want to go back to committees, then we're now into September before this can move again.

    So, the hope is, let's keep everybody talking and moving, but I — but we can't get everybody to the table or force everyone to the table. We can just set things on the table and say, let's have that dialogue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, quickly to a few other important issues.

    One is the surging number of COVID cases around the country, especially across the South and the Southwest. Where does Oklahoma stand right now?

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    Yes, our cases have increased dramatically in about the last 10 days.

    We had about seven or eight weeks of decline, decline, decline, decline every week. We went through phase one, phase two and phase three, continued to see declines all through that process. And then the last 10 days, it's popped back up again.

    I talked to one of the scientists and medical professionals very early in the process, and they said dealing with a virus like this is like putting both hands on a helium balloon and holding it down. You know you can hold it down, but, at some point, if you let it go, it's going to rise again.

    So, until we get a vaccine, we're going to have to manage this as much as we can. And I think we will have periods of it, reinforcing to people, wear a mask, continue to do handwashing, continue to keep distancing physically from other people.

    We're — we have got to be able to keep people that are high risk away. But, in Oklahoma, we have seen our numbers rise, especially among the young. Our mortality rate has not increased. Our hospitalization has increased. But we're still less than 200 hospitalization in the entire state.

    So, it's not been a huge increase, like what we have seen in other states. But we have got to be able to pass this message on, especially to the young.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You say people should wear a mask, and yet, when President Trump held a rally in Tulsa on Saturday night, which you attended, mask wearing was not required. Are you OK with that?

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    So, mask wearing is not required in our state right now. It's recommended. I did wear a mask Saturday night.

    I was at the rally. There were quite a few folks that were around that were wearing a mask at the rally. But it's an optional thing. They were distributed individuals as they came in. So every individual was given that option to be able to do that. There's hand sanitizers everywhere. There were temperature checks as you came in.

    So they're trying to monitor it. Our state also has 80 different testing sites. And the word was put out early on, if you're planning on attending the rally, you can stop by any one of those 80 testing sites and to be able to get a test before you go as well.

    So, people have to take responsibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally, Senator, President Trump in the last few days has used the term kung-flu to refer to the COVID virus.

    As you know, a lot of people are saying, that's racist. Are you comfortable with his use of that? Do you use that term?

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    I don't use that term. I also don't see it as racist. I also see a lot of issues in the world that are a lot bigger when — than what terms somebody uses to be able to identify this virus.

    So, there's a lot of really important, really big issues that we should deal with. That one, I just think, is a distraction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, we thank you.

  • Sen. James Lankford:

    Thank you.

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