• Passing criminal justice reform this year appears less likely after Senate Leader McConnell’s comments to President Trump that there won’t be time for it during the lame duck session.
  • Reform advocates warn that waiting until next year, when Democrats take control of the House, would risk killing it.
  • Several leading GOP senators have said they believe they have plenty of votes to pass the bill.

Cooling prospects for criminal justice reform in 2018

Momentum was building rapidly for comprehensive reforms to the criminal justice system last week as a bipartisan group of senators, advocates, and even President Donald Trump rallied around the First Step Act. But the prospect of sending the bill to the desk of the president before the end of 2018’s lame duck session received a blow when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reportedly told the president there would not be time to push the bill through due to other legislative priorities.

With less than a month and a half until the new year, time is indeed of the essence. If criminal justice legislation passed the Senate, it would still have to go back through the House. However McConnell aides, TIME reported this week, are not sure how the bill stacks up against his top priorities like funding the government after Dec. 7, and they’re unsure if it has the votes.

“Privately,” the TIME story adds, “McConnell is less enthusiastic about the bill if it comes at the expense of another round of judicial nominees, his signature issue, and the amount of time it could eat up on the floor as everyone has eyes on flights out of Washington for the holidays.”

The stakes are high — and not only for the glimmer of hope the bill offers that bipartisan reform is possible in today’s polarized political climate. The First Step Act is a combination of legislation of the same name that the House passed in May and the Senate’s 2015 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Combining estimates by the Congressional Budget Office for these two bills, the latest Senate bill would lead to a net reduction in discretionary spending of $729 million over the next decade.

McConnell said he would be willing to bring up the bill next year if it has enough support in the new Congress. However reform advocates warn that waiting until next year, when Democrats take control of the House and could potentially demand more concessions, would risk killing it. As the GOP’s window of opportunity begins to close, a host of supporters on the right are urging the Senate to act.

“GOP colleagues: NOW is time to pass crim justice reform unless your argument is that you prefer to work w Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass a bill?” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the bill’s sponsors, tweeted on Friday.

Senators urge action now

A number of prominent GOP senators are pushing hard for McConnell to pick up the bipartisan bill and are bullish on its chances should he choose to do so.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another co-sponsor, said he believes there is enough support on both sides of the aisle to pass the bill.

“Let’s start 2019 on a positive note,” Graham said. “I’m urging Sen. McConnell to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. It would get 80 votes. Mr. President, pick up the phone and push the Republican leadership.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made a similar appeal on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying he believes there is a “real chance” to pass the legislation.

“With President Trump being in favor of this criminal justice reform, he came out publicly for it, really it only depends on one senator now,” Paul said. “If Sen. Mitch McConnell, from my home state, will allow a vote, it gets 65 to 70 votes in the Senate. It’ll be one of the most popular things to ever pass.”

Speaking to Axios on Tuesday, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he is “hopeful that Leader McConnell will create floor time for a bill that we believe has 65–70 senators on board.”

“I’ve been working on this issue for nearly eight years, and we have never been closer than we are right now,” said Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, on a private call with McConnell and Grassley on Monday, according to The New York Times. “The stars have just aligned in such a way, all it takes is getting to the Senate floor.”

In the House, outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that if the Senate passed it the compromise legislation would be pushed through the House “this term.”

Also boosting the bill’s prospects is recently-announced support from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a prominent Democrat who during his time in office has introduced a slew of bills seeking to reform the criminal justice system.

“The criminal justice reform compromise introduced in the Senate today is a step forward for our criminal justice system. It represents what must be the beginning of a long effort to right past wrongs that continue to deny justice to millions of Americans. I support this legislation and will work to build further support for it among my colleagues,” Booker said in a statement.

Republican opposition has come most strongly from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is concerned that the bill could give early release to certain sexual offenders and inmates who have assaulted law enforcement officers.

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

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