Pence, Kushner huddle with Senate GOP on criminal justice reform
© Stefani Reynolds

Vice President Pence and President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE's son-in-law and adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerJared Kushner, Ivanka Trump to appear at fundraiser for Jim Jordan: report Trump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline MORE met behind closed doors with Senate Republicans on Tuesday to talk criminal justice reform as the president urges GOP leadership to vote on a bill this year.

Senators said Kushner, who has been deeply involved in the Senate talks, didn't speak during the lunch, instead letting Pence make the administration's case for supporting the legislation.

"Appreciated VP Pence & Jared Kushner representing the White House 2day at GOP caucus lunch in support of crim justice reform Will [be] historic achievement [and] big win for Pres Trump," Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases Million-dollar drugs pose new challenge for Congress MORE (R-Iowa), who helped craft the deal, said in a tweet on Tuesday evening.

Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, unveiled additional support for the bill after the meeting on Tuesday, bringing the total number of senators who are formally co-sponsoring the legislation to 24.

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But Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats frustrated by Hope Hicks's silence Only black GOP senator Tim Scott calls reparations a 'non-starter' On The Money: Trump weighs emergency declaration for Mexico tariffs | GOP senators look to rein in Trump on trade | Powell says Fed may cut rates if trade war hurts economy MORE (R-S.C.), after the closed-door meeting, said senators had 21 "hard" yes votes among the Senate Republican caucus with another handful of GOP senators viewed as likely to support the bill.

Supporters believe they have momentum after Trump offered his endorsement of the legislation earlier this month. Since then, the president has publicly urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Adam Scott calls on McConnell to take down 'Parks & Rec' gif Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE (R-Ky.) to bring it up for a vote.

The agreement would merge a House-passed prison reform bill with four changes to sentencing laws, including lowering mandatory minimums for some drug-related felonies and retroactively applying the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

But McConnell, according to senators, did not tip his hand during the meeting Tuesday. He has noted that senators have a tight time frame to finish their work for the year and still need to clear must-pass bills including government funding and the farm bill.

Scott noted that he had "no sense yet" about where McConnell would come down, adding that the notoriously tight-lipped leader "holds his cards close to his chest."

McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that they are measuring support within the Senate Republican Conference for the legislation, as well as trying to find a consensus on the timing of the bill.

"We also just had an extensive discussion of criminal justice in our conference, both those who believe we should go forward with a bill this year and those who think we should not," McConnell said.

Supporters believe they could easily get 60 votes for the Senate agreement, but the bill has steep opposition from a small but vocal wing of the caucus. And GOP leadership has refused to bring up previous versions of the legislation because of Republican infighting.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonUS officials express optimism negotiations with Iran possible Cotton: 'Healthy skepticism warranted' when dealing with Democrats on immigration Cotton: I hope Trump's statement 'got through' to Iran's leaders MORE (R-Ark.) claimed that "thousands, thousands of serious, repeat violent felons" would be released under the bill, saying the end result would be former prisoners committing additional crimes.

"Whatever word games they want to play will be a cold comfort to the victims of the crimes that these felons are going to be commit," Cotton told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt before the meeting.

In addition to Cotton, Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who is mulling a governor run in his home state, has said he is opposed to the bill and warned he will object if leadership tries to move it quickly.

Advocates have also flagged Sens. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSwing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike House Dems move to give lawmakers a pay increase Conservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries MORE (Neb.) and Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischOvernight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial MORE (Idaho) as other Republican senators who could be hard to win over on the legislation.

Both supporters and opponents spoke about the legislation during the closed-door Senate GOP meeting with Pence and Kushner.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.) said the discussion was largely focused on "higher level" talks on criminal justice reform and that, if leadership decides to bring up the bill, it could take up to a week of floor time.

"Those people who oppose it you know are probably going to oppose it all the way through," he said. "The people that are for it are really for it, and the people that are against it are really against. ... A lot of people are trying to understand what it does."

GOP Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBooker calls for hearings on reports of ICE using solitary confinement GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (S.C.), speaking to reporters after the meeting, dismissed Cotton as the "guy who was most sharply against the bill" and argued that lawmakers have their best shot this year to pass legislation.

"I feel good about it. ... [But] if it doesn't happen this year it's probably never going to happen because next year you're going to have Democratic control of the House," Graham said. "Starting over next year makes it really difficult."