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How George Floyd's Death Made Republicans On Capitol Hill Shift Their Rhetoric

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Senate is preparing to vote this week on a GOP police reform bill. Democrats have signaled that they could block the legislation, which they say does not meet the moment. Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and national protests, Republicans on Capitol Hill have begun talking about race and policing directly, two things that have not typically been among their top issues. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has this report.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: On June 9, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell left a weekly GOP luncheon and set a new tone for how the party would be talking about race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Now, we're still wrestling with America's original sin. We try to get better. But every now and then, it's perfectly clear we're a long way from the finish line.

SNELL: McConnell was announcing a task force led by Senator Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, to address racial inequality and brutality in policing. Until this month, most Republicans said policing was a state and local issue. Many avoided the topic of race and policing entirely. But that has changed since the killing of George Floyd.

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JONI ERNST: There has been injustice for a very long time, and this is a very uncomfortable conversation.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I've learned over the years, but particularly recently, that every Black man in America apparently feels threatened when they're stopped by the cops.

JOHN CORNYN: For me, this conversation is about trust, justice and reconciliation.

SNELL: Those were the voices of Republican senators Joni Ernst, Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn. Shermichael Singleton, a conservative analyst who worked on the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Ben Carson, says the public conversation among congressional Republicans on both policing and race is a significant shift. He reads it as a message from party leaders.

SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON: We got to get this right. This is the right moment. This is an opportunity for us to sort of reset. This is an opportunity for us to use new language that signifies, at the minimal, the GOP understands that there is a problem.

SNELL: The Republican National Committee issued a formal report after the 2012 presidential election. They found the GOP lost badly that year and they would continue to lose if they did not start appealing to minorities. In the years since, many Republicans dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement, and the party's relationship with Black voters soured further under President Trump. Republicans fighting now to keep their Senate majority see overwhelming public support for Black Lives Matter, protesters and the calls for police reform. Singleton says that has them worried.

SINGLETON: But I genuinely think that there are some leaders - and Mitch McConnell may be one - that's looking at the long term and is thinking, we got to get this right because if we don't, the party is going to be in shambles.

SNELL: Other Republicans, like Jonathan Burks, a former McConnell adviser and the former chief of staff to then-Speaker Paul Ryan say the Floyd video was a transformational moment.

JONATHAN BURKS: You know, the police are supposed to be protecting everyone's rights. They're supposed to be protecting everyone's lives. And to see - sort of to be thrust into everyone's face the fact that that wasn't happening, that isn't happening on a consistent basis - I just think people are frustrated by that and recognize that in order to restore public confidence, you've got to be able to take action.

SNELL: Republicans say the video made it clear that there had to be a role for the federal government to step in with standards. But the shift in conversation hasn't been entirely easy. Democrats and Republicans don't share the same language or perspective on how to fix problems with policing or how to frame conversations about race. In particular, they differ over whether systemic racism is to blame. And they disagree about how to ban things like chokeholds and who should be liable when police do use force. Scott himself says those differences don't have to stand in the way.

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TIM SCOTT: Too often we're having a discussion in this nation about - are you supporting the law enforcement community, or are you supporting communities of color? This is a false binary choice.

SNELL: But divides like that could mean that a significant shift in tone from Republicans may not bring the two parties close enough to pass any significant reform.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.