Trump throws support behind criminal justice bill

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill MORE threw his support behind long-stalled bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation on Wednesday, kicking off a legislative sprint on Capitol Hill, where obstacles remain to getting the bill to his desk by the end of the year.

Trump formally backed the legislation during a White House event while surrounded by GOP lawmakers, outside groups and son-in-law and adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner: Trump will make chief of staff decision 'when he’s ready' Press: Mueller closes in on Trump Democratic House panel could investigate ties between Kushner, Saudi crown prince: report MORE. The president said lawmakers had “poured their time” and “heart” into getting an agreement.

“These members have reached a bipartisan agreement … on prison reform legislation. Today I’m thrilled to announce my support,” Trump said. “I urge lawmakers in both House and Senate to work hard and to act quickly and send a final bill to my desk, and I look very much forward to signing it.”

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“Today’s announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible and maybe it will be thriving," Trump said. "When Republicans and Democrats talk, debate and seek common ground we can achieve breakthroughs that move our country forward and deliver for our citizens.”

Advocates of the bill are in a lobbying frenzy on Capitol Hill to lock down undecided votes. A group of senators led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBrady releases revised version of year-end tax package Overnight Health Care: House set to vote on bill targeting drug companies for overcharging Medicaid | Dems press Trump officials on pre-existing conditions | Tobacco giant invests .8B in Canadian marijuana grower House set to vote on bill cracking down on drug companies overcharging Medicaid MORE (R-Iowa) are expected to quickly introduce legislation and Senate GOP leadership has pledged to measure support for the bill.

If Congress can pass criminal justice reform legislation it would mark a significant victory for Grassley and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinO’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform Political opposites come together for Bush funeral MORE (D-Ill.), who have been negotiating for years. Trump announced support for the bill a week after the midterm elections, where Democrats won back enough seats to take control of the House next year.

The Senate deal links the House’s prison reform bill with four sentencing provisions, according to draft legislation and bill summaries viewed by The Hill.

The sentencing provisions include reducing lifetime mandatory minimum sentences after two prior felony drug convictions to at least 25 years; reducing minimum sentences after one prior conviction from 20 to 15 years; and making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.

It also would expand an existing safety valve for mandatory minimum sentencing that would not apply retroactively.

With less than four weeks until lawmakers leave town for the year, major hurdles remain to getting the legislation to Trump's desk.

Senate GOP leadership has publicly been lukewarm on criminal justice legislation and the bill could get pushback from 2020 Democratic White House hopefuls or House Democrats, who will have more leverage when they are in the majority next year.

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Still, securing Trump’s backing is major victory for a group of senators and Kushner, who have been deep in negotiations for months.

"I think there's a big group of Republicans who were waiting to see what the president was going to do on this," a White House official said, adding that now there are a "lot more reasons" for skeptical conservative lawmakers to back the agreement.

Kushner briefed Trump on the details of the Senate compromise on Tuesday with senators, who were briefed on their talk, describing themselves as “optimistic” of winning over Trump and the conversation between the president and Kushner as “positive.”

Trump gave Kushner a shoutout during Wednesday’s event, saying he worked “so hard on the bill” and “feels very deeply” about the issue.

The president announcing his support is also a crucial step for the criminal justice reform legislation having any chance of passing Congress this year.

Holly Harris, the head of Justice Action Network, said lawmakers in both parties have been “holding their cards very close until the president endorses the package,” but now that he’s backing the legislation “the dominos fall.”

Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative FreedomWorks, added that Trump’s backing is crucial to getting a criminal justice reform bill to the Senate floor over the objections of a small, but vocal, group of conservative opponents.

"I feel pretty good that we have the president's ear on this,” he added.

Trump’s endorsement is crucial given that broader criminal justice reform legislation has stalled for years, despite support from the Obama administration, because of pushback from conservatives, including then-Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Mueller closes in on Trump Mueller's findings don't matter The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe MORE (R-Ala.).

Sessions was ousted as attorney general last week, providing symbolic momentum to supporters of criminal justice reform legislation. Advocates and a senior administration official have told The Hill that they believe Justice Department officials, under Sessions, were spreading misinformation earlier this year in an attempt to sway lawmakers against a potential criminal justice bill.

In a major boost to combat “weak on crime” accusations, the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement labor organization in the U.S., endorsed the bill on Friday, crediting Trump and his staff for working with them on the bill.

Trump ran on a tough-on-crime platform during his 2016 presidential campaign, playing to the party’s base as he tried to win the nomination. And he touted on Wednesday that the legislation had the support of law enforcement groups and their supporters on Capitol Hill, which could help quell some opposition.

Trump said Wednesday that the “toughest, strongest law enforcement people” had reached out to him about the bill and they “are so in favor of it.”

“Throughout this process my administration has worked closely with law enforcement. Their backing has ensured that this legislation remains tough on crime. It’s got to remain very tough on crime and supports the tremendous work of our police,” Trump said at the White House.

But potential conservative opponents remain. Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure Trump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Ark.), a close ally of the president, has previously helped kill deals on other policies like immigration and has given no indication that he’s changing his thinking on sentencing reform since an August Wall Street Journal op-ed.

He warned in the op-ed against cutting mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes or giving judges more discretion to reduce those sentences.

“That foolish approach is not criminal-justice reform—it’s a jailbreak that would endanger communities and undercut President Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order,” Cotton wrote.

A spokeswoman for Cotton said the senator and his staff have had “ongoing discussions with Jared Kushner and his team about criminal justice reform. We have not seen the latest draft of the legislation, but his views on sentencing reductions remain the same.”

Grassley appeared to take a shot at Cotton and other potential Republican detractors on Wednesday night, tweeting, "I sincerely hope no GOP Sen is trying to undermine Pres Trump & son in law/adviser Kushner w false info on this TOUGH ON CRIME & SMART bill."

Advocates predict that, if the bill gets a vote, there will be a handful of GOP opponents in the Senate. Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who is mulling a gubernatorial run in his home state, is also viewed as a likely "no" vote by outside groups.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) who was vocally opposed to a previous, broader version of a Senate criminal justice reform bill, has indicated that he wants to get to a place where he can support the compromise drafted by Grassley’s group.

“I've been working with him [Kushner] and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCorker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death This week: Trump, Dems set to meet amid funding fight Congress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle MORE and the White House,” Perdue told The Hill on Wednesday, referring to the Republican senator from Utah. “This bill has some sentencing issues in there, some I support, some I’m troubled with, but overall if we have to go this far to get a deal with the Democrats then I’m supportive because I think we need to reform how we look [at] and view and operate our prisons.”

But there are significant obstacles remaining to getting a bill to Trump’s desk by the end of the year, including the congressional calendar.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe Judd Gregg: The government goes geriatric MORE (R-Ky.) was noncommittal on giving the bill a vote by the end of the year when pressed on the issue by reporters Wednesday, noting there wasn’t a lot of time left. Congress is scheduled to leave town for the year on Dec. 14.

“We don’t have a lot of time left," McConnell said. "The first step is to finalize what proponents are actually for. There have been a lot of different versions floating around. And then we’ll whip it and see where the vote count is and then see how it stacks up against our other priorities going into the end of the session."

In addition to criminal justice reform, Congress has a Dec. 7 government funding deadline and needs to pass a massive farm bill. McConnell has also placed a premium on nominations and said he wants to get an agreement on sexual harassment legislation this year.

Kushner met with McConnell around September, according to the White House official, to see if the legislation could be passed before November's midterm elections. McConnell asked that the legislation be held until after the election, adding that if supporters could show they have more than the 60 votes needed to pass, he would try to bring it to the floor and give it a vote.

The official acknowledged that the legislation will need to compete with other items for Senate floor time but said they were "optimistic that it will have way more than clear 60 votes."

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure This week: Trump, Dems set to meet amid funding fight GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, added that to get through Congress the legislation will need to get “consent” — which would allow it to skip over procedural hurdles that would otherwise eat up a week of floor time.

"It's going to take, basically, consent by 100 senators to proceed in some expedited fashion," Cornyn said, warning that without consent, the Senate could chew up a week "and maybe not accomplish anything."
 
"There's just not a lot of time," he added.
 
Meanwhile, Durbin is working to lock down support among Democrats. He told reporters earlier Wednesday that “I’m still working on this bill; I’m trying to get the votes for it.”
 
Advocates are hoping that his clout on the issue will keep 2020 jockeying to a minimum and convince House Democrats not to push the issue to next year, when they will be in the majority.
 
Pye said the chance that Democrats could try to kick the issue to next year, where they’ll have more leverage has, been “at the forefront of my mind"
 
"Senator Durbin is going to be key in convincing House Democrats not to overstep,” he said.
 
Harris predicted that once Durbin endorses the bill, “you'll see a domino effect amongst Democrats.” 
 
– Alexander Bolton contributed. This report was updated at 7:35 p.m.