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

Vice President Pence and President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE's son-in-law and adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerJilani: China 'sending clear message' to Biden officials with sanctions that opposition could lead to 'future pay cut' Would Trump have gotten away with a self-pardon? History will never know Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury Finance Committee vote on Yellen nomination scheduled for Friday 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 ScottGOP senator calls Biden's COVID-19 relief plan a 'non-starter' GOP senator questions constitutionality of an impeachment trial after Trump leaves office Biden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP 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 McConnellSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses McConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Budowsky: A Biden-McConnell state of emergency summit 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 CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP senator: Impeachment a 'moot point' after Trump's exit Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee 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 SasseBen SasseJuan Williams: Let America be America Kremlin: US statements about pro-Navalny protests show 'direct support for the violation of the law' Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial MORE (Neb.) and Jim RischJim Elroy RischBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official 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 CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' 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 GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair 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."