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

Vice President Pence and President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE's son-in-law and adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? Rule change sharpens Dem investigations into Trump Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry 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 GrassleyHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Grassley raises voice after McConnell interrupts Senate speech 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 ScottSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Senate passes bill to make lynching a federal crime Partnerships paving the way to sustain and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities 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 McConnellDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire 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 approves border bill that prevents shutdown 'Morning Joe' host quizzes Howard Schultz on price of a box of Cheerios Huawei charges escalate Trump fight with China 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 SasseOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Push for cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill | Court lets Dems defend ObamaCare | Flu season not as severe as last year, CDC says Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears MORE (Neb.) and Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate approves Syria, anti-BDS bill Trump administration to suspend nuclear treaty with Russia 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 CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy 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 GrahamPence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech The Memo: Trump and McCabe go to war Graham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview 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."