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Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship

Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship
© Greg Nash

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyColorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Iowa) has carried water for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Biden and reproductive health rights Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls 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 TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge 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 CottonTom Bryant CottonBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE (R-Ark.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFormer CIA head, Cruz trade jabs over killing of Iranian nuclear scientist: 'You are unworthy to represent the good people of Texas' O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation 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 CornynCornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report Top GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Utah), and Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel Feinstein to step down as top Democrat on Judiciary Committee MORE (Vt.) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee 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 BraleyThe Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP 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 ClintonGroups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Biden's political position is tougher than Trump's Valadao unseats Cox in election rematch MORE with a massive lead over Bernie SandersBernie SandersClub for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout Inequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift In defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism 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.