Law Enforcement Funding Package Splits Democrats Ahead of Midterm Elections

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WASHINGTON — Legislation to increase funding for local police departments has hit a snag on Capitol Hill amid deep Democratic divisions, as progressives balk at steering more money to law enforcement and moderates clamor for action that could blunt Republicans’ efforts to paint them as soft on crime ahead of the midterm elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged for weeks to bring up a package of bills that would provide funding for hiring more police officers, increasing salaries, investing in officer safety and training and body cameras, as well as mental health resources for officers.

But the measures, championed by vulnerable Democrats from conservative-leaning districts, have become mired in a yearslong internal feud about the politics of crime, leaving the party without an answer to Republican attacks and some of its members livid.

“I have heard a whole host of reasons for people wanting to excuse inaction,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, who is in a difficult re-election race in a competitive district that includes the suburbs of Richmond, and is a lead proponent of the legislation. “The sort of generalized excuses — I’ve heard it a lot. Tomorrow it will be, ‘It’s raining.’”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who pressed successfully for the package to include measures to strengthen accountability for police misconduct, have also pushed to move ahead with it.

A spokesman for the caucus said that the issue remains a priority for the group.

Yet a small group of progressives has so far refused to back the legislation, leaving Democrats short of the votes they would need to bring it up. House Democratic leaders do not want to put their party’s divisions on display at a time when the political map is looking more favorable for them than it did just a few months ago. So Ms. Pelosi has been holding off on announcing any vote, as lawmakers continue discussions with those withholding their support.

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

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

Because of Democrats’ slim majority in the House, the opposition of Ms. Jayapal and just three other liberals would be enough to block it from proceeding to a vote. Talks among her, moderate Democrats and party leaders were continuing on Monday, according to a person familiar with the negotiations, with some still hopeful for a potential breakthrough.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, has been pushing for a vote on the measure this week, a second person familiar with the talks said.

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

Yet time is running short for Democrats to act before the midterm elections, in which Republicans have once again made crime a major point of attack. With the legislation languishing, vulnerable Democrats are losing out on a potential political boost from passing a pro-police bill. There is little time remaining 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 that many progressives embraced amid a series of high-profile cases of excessive violence by law enforcement, particularly against people of color.

The Republican criticism has sharpened around election time, including in recent weeks, as gas prices have fallen and the party has searched for other ways to tarnish Democrats in the eyes of suburban voters, such as spotlighting the dysfunctional immigration system and the continuing toll of inflation.

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Before the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald J. Trump branded Democrats the “party of crime,” even though crime rates had risen in cities with leaders of both political parties. Since 2019, murders have spiked by nearly 40 percent, and violent crimes, including shootings and other assaults, have increased overall.

The drama that is playing out now is the latest chapter in a long-running fight about the issue among Democrats. After the party’s disappointing results in the 2020 midterm elections, as Democrats bickered internally about what had gone wrong, Ms. Spanberger privately vented her frustration about progressive colleagues who had embraced the “defund the police” movement, arguing that Democrats had to push back much more forcefully against Republican efforts to caricature them as anti-law enforcement.

At the time, progressives including Ms. Jayapal angrily rejected the criticism, arguing that they had helped to turn out the party’s liberal base by speaking to the issues that animated core supporters, including people of color, allowing Democrats to hold the House majority.

Those pressing to pass the legislation this year argue that it goes beyond politics and would make communities safer by helping police departments focus on community-oriented approaches. And they have tried to address broad concerns among Democrats about including meaningful police accountability measures.

Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced the Invest to Protect Act, which would direct the Justice Department to award grants to local or tribal governments with fewer than 200 law enforcement officers to improve recruitment, purchase body cameras and provide de-escalation training.

“We have to make it clear to the country that we’re a party that’s tough on crime and supports protecting our communities and those who do,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters, adding that party members had voted for police funding. “We voted for it in the last budget, the budget before that, and every budget since I’ve been here to make sure that law enforcement have the resources it needed.”

Civil rights groups including the N.A.A.C.P. are making the case that additional police funding must be paired with accountability measures.

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

But with the legislative calendar dwindling, many pressing for action said they remained skeptical there would be any real effort to move forward.

“I keep hearing from leadership, ‘We really want to bring these bills,’ ” Ms. Spanberger said. “And yet.”

Democrats had originally hoped to vote on the police funding bills over the summer and were planning to pair them with legislation to ban assault weapons that passed in July, before lawmakers left Washington for their August recess. But when disagreements emerged about accountability measures in the police bills, Ms. Pelosi chose to move ahead with just the assault weapons ban and revisit the law enforcement legislation in the fall.

Now the House is back, but the police funding issue has not yet been settled.

Representative Yvette D. Clarke, Democrat of New York, said she recognized the need for additional police funding, but still had reservations that the measures lacked sufficient accountability measures for law enforcement, which she described as “a tacit acceptance of abusive behaviors.”

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

Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.

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