Grassley: Senate 'very close' to deal on criminal justice reform

Greg Nash

The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee is increasingly bullish that criminal justice reform will become law this year.

Sen. Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley: Mylan not going far enough with EpiPen discounts Five things to know about the Clinton Foundation and its donors Clinton calls for EpiPen maker to lower price MORE (R-Iowa) on Tuesday said revisions to a bipartisan bill passed by his panel last year would be unveiled "soon." He predicted the amended package would attract enough support to reach President Obama's desk.

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"We feel that we're very, very close," Grassley said during a criminal justice conference at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. "I'm confident that with these changes, my colleagues will realize that this bill is … reasonable and responsible."

Grassley devoted a good deal of his 13-minute speech to the bipartisan cooperation on sentencing reform — and there's little mystery why.

The Judiciary chairman is at the center of the bare-knuckle brawl over Obama's bid to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. He has sided squarely with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellClinton, Trump sharpen attacks Sanders, Merkley back McConnell decision to skip TPP vote John McCain: No longer a profile in courage MORE (R-Ky.) in stating that the Senate should stage no hearings — let alone a floor vote — for the president’s pick. 

The Democrats have pounced, accusing Republican leaders of neglecting to uphold their constitutional duties. 

The charges have put GOP leaders on the defensive in a year when Democrats are eying a Senate takeover. Indeed, the Democrats' campaign arm is running ads in the states of vulnerable Republicans that highlight the GOP's refusal to consider Scalia's replacement.

Among those targets is Grassley, who is up for reelection this year in Iowa — a state Obama won in 2008 and 2012. 

Democrats believe Grassley’s seat could be in play this fall and have found a strong recruit — former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge — to take him on. Judge visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with Senate Democrats at their weekly luncheon.

While Grassley on Tuesday did not mention the Supreme Court fight directly, he alluded to it several times in referencing the criminal justice bill as evidence that GOP leaders are ready to roll up their sleeves in search of bipartisan compromise. 

"This is how the Senate works best," Grassley said. "Unlike some other issues that are now at the forefront of our political conversations, this is an issue that can bring senators from both sides of the aisle together, and from different perspectives.  

"We should focus our energy on bills just like this, where we can work together," he added.

Among Obama's top domestic priorities in his final year in office, criminal justice reform is seen as one of the few issues with enough bipartisan support to pass Congress in the polarized election year.

The Judiciary Committee passed a reform bill in October on a 15-5 vote that included every Democrat on the panel. But the measure met with fierce opposition from some conservatives — including Sens. Tom CottonTom CottonTrump, GOP see gold in Clinton Foundation attacks The Trail 2016: Trump works to widen his appeal Cotton: Clinton Foundation having 'fire sale' for access MORE (R-Ark.) and Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: On the fringe FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton links Trump to 'alt-right' in Reno Presidential hopefuls still bank on retail politics MORE (R-Texas), a presidential candidate — who contended the changes would send a flood of violent criminals into the streets.

Supporters of the legislation in both parties reject that assessment out of hand, and Grassley on Tuesday had some sharp words for the conservative opponents, calling their criticism "very, very unfair."

"Some have invoked the specter of a Willie Horton and claim that our bill is a get-out-of-jail-free card for violent criminals. This, of course, is not true," Grassley said, noting that local judges and prosecutors — "not Washington bureaucrats" — would make the decisions about the sentencing relief at the heart of the bill.

"In talking to some of these people, and-or their staffs, you come to the conclusion they didn't even read the bill before they made their statements."  

Still, Grassley has agreed to tweak several of the bill’s provisions in hopes of attracting broader support and, perhaps, preempting a bit of high-profile Republican infighting. Sens. Mike LeeMike LeeThe impact of silence: The incarceration of children who have committed no crime Fidelity denies lobbying for student loan tax break Cruz, Lee question legality of Iran payment MORE (R-Idaho) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinTrump poised to betray primary supporters on immigration Dem wants hearing on EpiPen price hikes Legislators privacy fight coincides with FCC complaint MORE (D-Ill.) are a part of those negotiations, Grassley said. 

"We cannot always agree on every issue, but Republicans and Democrats can come together, even on divisive issues, and find areas of consensus and agreement," he said. "We can show the American people that the United States Senate can, and does, work." 

McConnell, for his part, has declined to weigh in on either the merits of the legislation or a potential timeline for consideration on the floor. In January, he indicated GOP leaders were waiting for Judiciary leaders to finalize a bill and bring the conference "up to speed on this very important issue." 

"We're going to do that before any decision is made about floor time," McConnell said.

Grassley expressed optimism that Senate leaders in both parties would ultimately rally behind the package.

"I'm confident that with the changes that we're making in the bill, that we'll get even more support. … And with more support, I'm confident that we'll be able to go to the leaders in the Senate and persuade them that this bill is exactly what the American people need to see happen in the United States Senate this year," Grassley said.  

"And I have a promise from the President of the United States that he will help us in any way he can."

Tuesday's conference at Georgetown Law was sponsored by the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based Jewish group that advocates for the incarcerated.