WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a narrow Republican bill to incentivize police departments to change their tactics, refusing even to open debate on a measure they denounced as an insufficient and irredeemably flawed answer to the problem of systemic racism in law enforcement.
The vote, 55 to 45, was a setback in the effort to pass legislation this year to address excessive use of force and racial discrimination by the police, amid a groundswell of public sentiment in favor of overhauling law enforcement. The Democratic-led House is set on Thursday to pass its own sprawling legislation, but Senate Republican leaders have said they will not take up that measure, setting the stage for a bitter stalemate on the issue.
Expressing their deep opposition to the bill, Democrats demanded on Tuesday that Republicans negotiate a more expansive package that both parties could support, citing the opposition of dozens of civil rights groups to the measure as drafted and arguing that it was an unacceptable starting point for discussion.
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, told reporters that Democrats’ decision to block the bill was an effort “to not take crumbs on the table when there is a hunger that America has for real solutions to a very real problem.”
“This movement will not accept anything less than real, real substantial, substantive solutions, which are the solutions we have offered,” Ms. Harris said.
Republicans were livid at Democrats’ refusal to even allow the measure to reach the floor for a debate and accused them of deliberately sinking the bill for political purposes. It would have needed 60 votes to advance in the Senate, where a three-fifths supermajority is necessary for most major action. But only two Democrats, Senators Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, as well as Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, joined Republicans in supporting moving it forward.
“If you don’t think we’re right, make it better. Don’t walk away,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who spearheaded the legislation, said before the vote. He urged Democrats to support advancing the bill “so that we have an opportunity to deal with this very real threat to the America that is civil, that is balanced.”
“This is an opportunity to say yes,” he said.
After the measure failed, a visibly frustrated Mr. Scott returned and delivered extended remarks, saying that he had offered to give Democrats as many as 20 votes on proposed modifications to his bill that they were demanding, but that they had refused to accept. Privately, Democrats noted that revising the bill would have also required the approval of 60 senators, a threshold they feared they would not be able to meet.
“Instead of going forward and getting what you want now, they’ve decided to punt this ball until the election,” Mr. Scott said of Democrats. “You know why? Because they believe the polls reflect a 15-point deficit on our side, therefore they can get the bill they want in November.”
“The actual problem is not what is being offered, it is who is offering it,” he continued.
As Mr. Scott left the floor, senators who had gathered there to hear him speak stood to applaud him. One of them, Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, who said he had come to listen to Mr. Scott in appreciation of his work, launched into his own impassioned speech, denying that the outcome had been politically driven.
“That is a stiff charge,” Mr. Kaine said. “I voted not on the ‘what’ and not on the ‘who.’ I voted on the ‘how.’ We tried it the wrong way. Let’s try it the right way.”
The Republican bill would encourage state and local police departments to change their practices, including penalizing departments that do not require the use of body cameras and limiting the use of chokeholds. It would not alter the qualified immunity doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits or place new federal restrictions on the use of lethal force.
The measure that the House will consider on Thursday, the most aggressive intervention into policing that lawmakers have proposed in recent memory, would in effect eliminate qualified immunity, make it easier to track and prosecute police misconduct, restrict the use of lethal force and aim to force departments to eliminate the use of chokeholds.
Wednesday’s vote did not foreclose the possibility of reviving the policing measure. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, used a procedural maneuver that would allow him to bring it up again in the future, changing his vote from “yes” to “no” so he could later call for its reconsideration. But a flurry of private bipartisan talks to strike a deal on the issue had not borne fruit.