Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship

Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship
© Greg Nash

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFormer Romney strategist joins anti-Trump Lincoln Project Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Rosenstein to testify as part of Graham's Russia investigation probe MORE (R-Iowa) has carried water for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks 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 TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America 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 CottonDemocrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Chinese official accuses US of 'pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War' MORE (R-Ark.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections | 2M more Americans file new jobless claims, pushing total past 40M | White House to forgo summer economic forecast amid COVID-19, breaking precedent Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for Iran nuclear projects | Top Dems says State working on new Saudi arms sale | 34-year-old Army reservist ID'd as third military COVID-19 death 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 CornynGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting MORE (R-Utah), and Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  MORE (Vt.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight 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 Braley2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward 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 ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Longtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick How Obama just endorsed Trump MORE with a massive lead over Bernie SandersBernie SandersGloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities 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.