Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship

Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship
© Greg Nash

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (R-Iowa) has carried water for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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 CottonGOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' GOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE (R-Ark.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists 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 puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Utah), and Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (Vt.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle 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 ClintonDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally MORE with a massive lead over Bernie SandersBernie SandersConfused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Biden leads in early voting states, followed by Warren, Sanders: poll 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.