McConnell: Senate to take up criminal justice reform

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced the Senate will take up criminal justice reform before the end of the year.
  • Advocates believe they have ample votes in the Senate to pass the legislation, while House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump have confirmed their readiness to pass it and sign it into law.
  • Pushback from opposed lawmakers could lead to the legislation taking the majority of a week to complete.

The possibility of Congress passing the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that would bring wide-ranging reforms to the federal criminal justice system, looks much more likely this week after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he would bring it up for a vote before the end of the year.

“At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the revised criminal justice bill this month,” McConnell said, adding that he would bring it to the floor as soon as the end of the week.

The announcement represents a stark change from the decidedly uninterested tone McConnell had taken on the issue as recently as last week. Despite support from the White House and prominent Senators from both parties, McConnell had previously said that other legislative priorities would not leave enough time for the Senate to take up criminal justice reform.

A strong lobbying campaign from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and other prominent lawmakers coupled with a number of tweaks to win over skeptical Republicans like Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and David Perdue, R-Ga., appears to have met the threshold of support McConnell wanted to see before taking up the bill. McConnell had previously said he would not bring any criminal justice bill up for a vote unless it garnered 60 votes, and there was speculation that he did not want to risk fracturing his party during its final weeks in control of both chambers of Congress, especially with other major legislative priorities like funding the government and passing a new farm bill still outstanding.

“The president is tough on crime and reminds you all the time. He’s for this,” Grassley told Politico, noting that support for his criminal justice reform bill in the House has already been secured. “We’ve got 75 votes in the Senate. We listened to the caucus … everything people have asked us to do, we’ve done. I don’t know what more we can do.”

In the White House, senior advisor Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is widely credited with gaining President Donald J. Trump’s ear on the issue and using the clout of the executive branch in working out a compromise.

“I don’t think it would have happened without him,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the top players in the criminal justice debate on the Democratic side, said on Tuesday. Booker said he spoke with the White House earlier in the day and that both sides were committed “to keep working until we get it done.”

“Looks like it’s going to be passing, hopefully – famous last words,” Trump said Tuesday. “It’s really something we’re all very proud of. Tremendous support from Republicans and tremendous support from Democrats. Lot of years they’ve been waiting for it.”

If and when the bill comes up for debate on the Senate floor, look for opposition to come most fiercely from Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who said in a statement Tuesday that he believes the bill “has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals.”

“I’ll have a lot of amendments to offer,” Cotton told NBC News.

“Some supporters say they are willing to limit debate on the criminal justice package to pass it before Democrats take back the House and potentially destroy the fragile compromise,” Politico reported. “But moving quickly on the bill will require the consent of all 100 senators, including Cotton and other critics. Otherwise, the legislation could take the better part of a week to complete.”

Image Credit: “Mitch McConnell” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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