When Rep. Steven Horsford heads to the White House to meet with President Joe Biden this week, he will bring a message directly from the family of Tyre Nichols: Act now.
“They want action,” the Nevada Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus chair said of his conversation with Nichols’ parents. “The action is legislative action; that’s here in Congress and at the state and local level, they want executive actions that still can be taken by the president and his administration.”
Horsford and the CBC will sit down Thursday with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. But it’s unclear how they will produce the action that Nichols’ family wants following last week’s release of the video that captured the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis, Tenn., police officers.
The White House and the Black community find themselves at another tragic and all-too-familiar inflection point: eager to respond to another police killing of a Black man that has captured the nation’s attention but with limited capacity to do so. Horsford and the Black caucus plan on leading a full court press to show the country that D.C. isn’t completely toothless when it comes to this issue — that this time should be different. But those calls come in the shadow of a lack of movement on police reform. And even reform’s biggest boosters aren’t bullish on that shadow lifting.
“I’m not optimistic. I’m not confident that we are going to be able to get real police reform,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who will attend the White House meeting. “I approach working on this issue as a responsibility that I have to do, that we must try.”
Faced with the likelihood of legislative inertia, lawmakers and advocates have looked for solutions — even incremental ones — elsewhere.
In a CBC meeting Tuesday night, lawmakers zeroed in on their first and biggest request of Biden: a commitment to talk about policing in his State of the Union next week. They also discussed using the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as a starting framework for legislation to present to Biden — knowing that lawmakers would need to scale back the bill to open up the possibility of passage.
On Tuesday, Horsford met with Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, to preview requests the CBC will present to the president — including executive actions for changes to criminal justice laws. He said Rice appeared “open to hearing further recommendations for areas that may be things that the executive branch can do.”
More broadly, lawmakers, civil rights leaders and criminal justice reform advocates are pushing for Biden to use the bully pulpit to gather support to pass legislation, however it is shaped.
“The president has unique powers in the office of the presidency. He’s committed to this issue,” Horsford said. “He can use his position to help, just like he did by getting the [Bipartisan] Safer Communities Law across the finish line. Just like he did with getting the infrastructure law across the finish line, just like he did getting the CHIPS and Science law across the finish line.”
On both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, the death of Nichols has led to a sense of political agony and déjà vu. Lawmakers recognize they’ve been in this place before, as do White House officials. But there is also the feeling that little is left to do but run the same playbooks.
The last round of negotiations failed in September 2021 after a flurry of finger pointing and general disagreement over the issue of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits. Advocates say that this time around, they hope that a more consistent message from Biden — not just calling for one piece of legislation and stepping away to let members of Congress hash it out — can move the bill along. But those calling for action are also clear-eyed that Republicans now control the House of Representatives and that nine GOP votes are needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
The White House has taken steps to show it’s invested in the issue. After the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act failed to get a Senate vote in 2021, Biden eventually signed an executive order that created a national database of police misconduct, mandated body-worn camera policies and banned chokeholds from federal law enforcement agencies.
After Nichols’ death, the administration has taken additional steps to show that it is eager for action and attuned to the anguish felt by the Black community. When the video of Nichols’ death was released, both Biden and Harris reached out to his family to send their condolences. While speaking with Nichols’ mother and stepfather, Harris was invited to attend Wednesday’s funeral in Tennessee and accepted.
The White House has again called for Congress to pass the police reform bill but Biden has also consistently alluded to a lack of executive power left in his toolbox. “I can only do so much,” the president told reporters Friday.
“The president will continue to do everything in his power to fight for police reform in Congress,” a White House official said, “but it is Republicans in Congress who need to come together with their Democratic colleagues to ensure our justice system lives up to its name.”
Whether that will be enough for those looking to the White House for action is doubtful. Advocates praise the White House for doing what it can, often calling attention to the work of the Justice Department to be more aggressive in addressing policing and shootings involving officers. But how the next few days and weeks go will give the country an early indication of the ways in which the president plans to operate during major national crises without the power of both chambers of Congress.
Next week’s State of the Union address will provide Biden with his biggest audience. Members of the Nichols family will be attending the speech as guests of Horsford. Their presence, one Hill aide said, “means the president will all but have to speak to the issue.”
“Good politicians are able to adapt to the weather, the political weather. So if it’s raining, you go out with an umbrella,” said Maurice Mithchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “We’re counting on his ability to address this in the shadow of this horrific murder that the political climate has shifted. And so that requires a different type of politics, not the politics of two weeks ago or the politics of a year ago.”
But activists are also going to be looking at how the White House operates outside the bright lights of next week’s State of the Union.
Marc Morial, the National Urban League president who has met with Biden multiple times over the administration, said the president has “expressed to us in some meetings before [that he] could get out there and talk about this every day, but then sometimes that undermines the ability to get it done.”
But Morial, who has commended the administration for its executive orders and work using the Justice Department to address policing, added that on issues like criminal justice reform, the administration needs to be “showing efforts.”
“People will read that if you don’t talk about it, you don’t care. Because the way people define the presidency is by the bully pulpit,” Morial said. “They’re not in the meetings with members of Congress. They’re not in the telephone conversations. They don’t see the staff work all the time. And that’s the tension that the White House has got to figure that out.”