President Obama huddled with two top Republican lawmakers on Thursday in an effort to keep criminal justice reform legislation alive in Congress, the White House said Friday.
Obama met behind closed doors with the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
The White House powwow comes at a time when the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws faces serious hurdles on Capitol Hill.
“I do think we can produce a bill that moves in the direction of the priorities that I laid out,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. “And the president wanted to have a conversation with Sen. Grassley and Chairman Goodlatte to encourage them to continue to move in that direction.”
Obama’s meeting with Goodlatte and Grassley was first reported by the Huffington Post. It was not included on the president's public schedule.
An aide for the Virginia Republican declined to comment on the meeting. Grassley aide Beth Levine called it "a good discussion about issues that are currently before the committe."
Criminal justice reform is high on the president’s to-do list for Congress as he pursues a handful of legacy-defining accomplishments during his final year in office.
But the push to reduce criminal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders has become imperiled by policy divisions and election-year politics.
Some Republicans in the House are pushing to insert language into a sentencing reform package that could make it harder for the government to prosecute corporate crimes. They want to require federal prosecutors to prove that white-collar defendants acted knowingly to violate the law.
Koch Industries, which backs sentencing reform, and their GOP allies believe the provision would make the criminal code fairer — the same legal standard exists for murder and robbery cases.
But the Obama administration and Democrats says it would make it more difficult to prosecute corporate pollution and food tainting cases, as well as other business-related crimes.
Democrats in Congress have warned that attaching the language could sink the entire package. Grassley has suggested he is wary of tying “mens rea” language to the overall criminal justice reform effort.
“There are going to be some compromises involved and it probably won’t yield a perfect piece of legislation,” Earnest said.
Republicans have also grown divided about the merits of lightening prison sentences for drug crimes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a 2016 presidential candidate, has derided the bill, saying it would make cities and towns less safe.
Wary of dividing his conference in an election year, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been noncommittal toward holding a vote on the legislation this year, as the president has requested.
Thursday's meeting is another sign of the president’s personal involvement in keeping the push alive.
Obama met privately with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House in December and one of his closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett, hosted Mark Holden, a legal adviser to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
-- This report was updated at 4:29 p.m.