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

Vice President Pence and President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE's son-in-law and adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerNo reason to assume American relations with Mexico are rocky GOP lawmaker predicts Kushner will be Trump’s next chief of staff Ocasio-Cortez mocks idea Kushner could be Trump's chief of staff 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 Year Ahead: Tough tests loom for Trump trade agenda Senate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill Top security officials issue stark warning of Chinese espionage efforts 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 ScottTrump signs order aimed at revitalizing economically distressed communities Juan Williams: Nowhere to go for black Republicans Tim Scott: Stop giving court picks with 'questionable track records on race' a Senate vote 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 McConnellTrump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law Federal judge in Texas strikes down ObamaCare Ocasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached 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 CottonSenate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill McConnell sets Monday test vote on criminal justice bill Trump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report 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 SasseCNN to partner with The Des Moines Register on polling ahead of 2020 Iowa caucuses Sasse calls on DOJ to investigate its handling of wealthy sex offender's plea deal Beto O'Rourke seen as a top contender in 2020: poll MORE (Neb.) and Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischCongress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle Pence, Kushner huddle with Senate GOP on criminal justice reform Congress can save arms control 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 CorkerThe Hill's 12:30 Report – Cohen says Trump knew payments were wrong | GOP in turmoil over Trump shutdown threat | Kyl to resign from Senate at year's end The Hill's Morning Report — Trump maintains his innocence amid mounting controversies Overnight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force 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 GrahamOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Former FBI official says Mueller won’t be ‘colored by politics’ in Russia probe 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."