Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship

Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship
© Greg Nash

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government Five things to watch during Barr’s confirmation hearing McConnell rebukes Steve King over white nationalist comments MORE (R-Iowa) has carried water for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Shutdown Day 25 | Dems reject White House invite for talks | Leaders nix recess with no deal | McConnell blocks second House Dem funding bill | IRS workers called back for tax-filing season | Senate bucks Trump on Russia sanctions Mellman: Why does the GOP persist? Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (R-Ky.) in a big way this Congress, having implemented the leadership’s strategy of blocking President Obama’s judicial picks.

Now it might be time for McConnell to return the favor.

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Polls suggest the Supreme Court fight has taken a toll on Grassley, who may be in for the toughest reelection fight of his career.

A Loras College poll last week showed Grassley in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Patty Judge, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor.

The six-term incumbent remains the favorite, but with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, at the top of the ticket, anything seems possible this election season.

And Democrats have used the Supreme Court blockade to hammer Grassley as an instrument of GOP heavyweights in Washington, tarnishing the independent brand he’s built over decades in the Senate.

“Iowans expect him to do his job and put their needs first but for the past 100 days he has continued to put the will of his party first,” Judge declared in a statement marking the 100 days since Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. “It’s clear that he’s been in Washington too long.”

One obvious way McConnell could help Grassley — and reward his allegiance in the court fight — would be to push bipartisan legislation reforming criminal sentencing through the Senate before Election Day.

Passage of the bill, for which Grassley is the lead sponsor, would be a huge win and show he can still get major deals done.

“There aren’t many comprehensive bills with this magnitude that have earned this type of support,” Grassley said at a press conference after he made changes to the bill to bring on more Republican support.

The problem is that doing so would require McConnell to face down two outspoken conservatives, Sens. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions How not to withdraw from Syria MORE (R-Ark.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Republicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Cruz says Americans outside Beltway unconcerned with Mueller investigation MORE (R-Texas).

A spokesman for Cruz said his boss is “currently reviewing the bill.”

So far, McConnell has avoided messy legislative fights that divide his conference in an election year with control of the Senate at stake.

The criminal sentencing reform bill may also run counter to McConnell’s personal views on the issue, although he has revealed little of himself publicly.

Senate GOP sources say McConnell, who has given priority to appropriations bills on the floor, tends to favor tough law enforcement policies. They point to his effort last year to extend the surveillance powers of the intelligence community.

Supporters say the legislation would likely win 60 votes if put on the floor. Backers include Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynTrump created a competition of crises: The border or the shutdown Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Former GOP rep: We would be 'storming the White House' if Obama mulled national emergency MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Trump AG pick signals new scrutiny on tech giants | Wireless providers in new privacy storm | SEC brings charges in agency hack | Facebook to invest 0M in local news AG pick Barr wants closer scrutiny of Silicon Valley 'behemoths' Grassroots political participation is under attack in Utah and GOP is fighting back MORE (R-Utah), and Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBarr: It would be a crime for president to pardon someone in exchange for their silence Barr says Trump won't be allowed to 'correct' Mueller report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE (Vt.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump AG pick: I won't be 'bullied' by anyone, including the president Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing Senate Dems set to take aim at new Trump attorney general pick MORE (Ill.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the second-ranking Democrat in leadership, respectively.

“There’s a strong cross section of the conference that supports the bill, from conservatives to moderates,” said one Senate Republican aide.

“On every metric he has ever articulated on how he will run this place, this bill meets those metrics,” the aide said. “It’s pretty clear why this stuff isn’t moving: It’s because Mitch McConnell doesn’t want it to move.”

McConnell’s spokesman, David Popp, said the leader won’t move on the bill while there’s still a debate among Republicans over what to do.

“While members continue to discuss the issue, we don’t have any scheduling announcements,” he said. 

Grassley began working with Durbin more than a year ago on the bill, which has 37 co-sponsors. He announced in April he would begin talks with McConnell on scheduling a floor debate and vote on the legislation giving judges more discretion in sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

McConnell pledged after taking over as majority leader that he would get the Senate working again by looking for middle ground and letting committee chairs handle the issues under their jurisdiction. 

Aside from the battle over Garland, Democrats have criticized Grassley for confirming only 21 of Obama’s judicial nominees during the last two years of his presidency. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved 68 judges during President George W. Bush’s final two years in office.

The barrage has worn down Grassley’s approval rating to below 50 percent for the first time in decades, and suddenly a race that few handicappers thought would be competitive at the start of the year is heating up.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee argued the Loras survey was flawed, pointing to past races it failed to gauge accurately.

In 2014, Loras College showed former Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell BraleyOPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward Trump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer MORE (D-Iowa) ahead of Joni Ernst (R) by a point in a Senate race shortly before Election Day, and he lost to her by nearly 9 points. It also showed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE with a massive lead over Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBrown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Gillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Dem chairman Cummings meets with Trump health chief to discuss drug prices MORE ahead of the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus. She barely eked out a victory.  

Still, another survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic-leaning firm, published in mid-June showed Grassley’s favorable rating among 630 registered Iowa voters at 49 percent — a warning sign for a six-term incumbent. A PPP poll later in the month showed a 43 percent approval rating.

Democrats argue Grassley’s latest numbers are significant because he has never won less than 64 percent of the vote since 1986.

They believe the lack of daylight between Grassley and McConnell on Garland and Obama’s other judicial nominees will give them ammo in the fall.

A PPP survey released late last month showed that only 35 percent of voters in Iowa trust Trump to pick someone to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Sixty-four percent of Iowa voters said they support hearings to fill the vacancy, and only 11 percent said they approved of McConnell, while 43 percent voiced disapproval.