WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday urged President Donald Trump to be a “healer in chief” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged “racism in America” as the wrenching debate fueling protests over the treatment of black people in the United States arrived in Congress.
Pelosi invoked Biblical scripture to reject Trump's clampdown on peaceful protesters outside the White House and she drew on past presidents — including George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the Rodney King unrest and Barack Obama following the death of Eric Garner — as models of the nation's chief executive at a time of crisis.
“We would hope that the president of the United States would follow the lead of so many presidents before him to be a healer in chief and not a fanner of the flame,” Pelosi said.
As pleas for reconciliation over the country’s long struggle with racial inequality were met with demands for accountability over George Floyd's death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, there was a shifting tone coming from Congress.
Gone are the days when “Black Lives Matter” protests were met simply with “Blue Lives Matter” retorts in support of law enforcement. Instead, Congress seems to have heard the protesters outside its doors.
“You can understand the outrage,” McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, said.
McConnell said it's not only the death of Floyd at the hands of white police in Minnesota drawing protesters into the streets, but of other African Americans, including Breonna Taylor in his home-state of Kentucky.
“There is no question that there is residual racism in America,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s been a longtime dilemma and we all wish we could get to a better place.”
As the world watches a nation in turmoil, Democrats and some Republicans are swiftly preparing inquiries into the president's actions against the protesters and a legislative response to the police violence and racial inequality at the heart of marches erupting in communities nationwide. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joined the protests.
Trump was widely criticized for clearing protesters late Monday from outside the White House so he could walk across the street to hold up a Bible outside historic St. John's Church. It was viewed as a photo opportunity and criticized by the congregation's bishop.
McConnell declined to directly comment on Trump’s handling of the crisis. However, several Republicans on Tuesday suggested it would be better if Trump helped calm the nation rather than escalate the already tense conditions in Washington and across the country.
“I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, in a statement. “Every public servant in America should be lowering the temperature.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called on Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to refuse the use of military helicopters and tear gas for “ugly stunts” like the one Monday.
Senate Democrats proposed, and Republicans rejected, a resolution condemning the president's actions. McConnell offered instead a resolution condemning rioting and police violence against black Americans, which Schumer rebuffed as insufficient.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he was “glad the president led” by clearing the protesters from the park.
Cruz and other Republicans blamed outside agitators from the “antifa” anti-fascist movement for intervening in otherwise peaceful protests that resulted in looting and other property damage.
Still, for a growing number of lawmakers there is an undeniable pattern of inequality in the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement, and they want to address it. Several Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, called Floyd’s death a “murder.”
One, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he understood there's a difference between his experience telling his sons to call the police if they need help and black families warning children to be cautious around law enforcement so as not to risk being harmed.
“That’s a different kind of America and I think people are understanding those protests make sense,” Blunt said.
More than 40 bills — from banning police choke holds and racial profiling to preventing the federal transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement to a long-sought federal anti-lynching law — are now under consideration on Capitol Hill. One House Democrat probed the Secret Service for any communication about Trump's ordering the clampdown on protesters outside the White House.
Using words like “dictator,” “fascist” and other terms to describe Trump's actions, Democrats pleaded with Americans to stand with those working to improve police treatment of minority populations.
“Racism is bad for everyone,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
She and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., among the nation's few black senators post-Reconstruction, spoke of their own childhoods growing up in civil rights era, a legacy of the nation's long path toward a more inclusive and representative government.
The Congressional Black Caucus announced a virtual town hall Friday with civil rights leaders, and House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler is planning a hearing next week on policing.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said House lawmakers could be recalled to Washington this month to vote on legislation to address police and other reforms.
Schumer urged McConnell to consider law enforcement reforms legislation by July 4.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.