Trump-backed prison reforms face major obstacles in Senate
A prison reform plan considered a top priority for Jared Kushner is running into headwinds in the Senate.
The White House-backed bill got a boost of momentum after it passed out of the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. The vote came after Republicans agreed to drop some of the conservative provisions that Democrats objected to.
But key members of the Senate are deadlocked about how to approach the bill, threatening the chances of it getting signed into law.
The central players in the drama are Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), a member of the panel and the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Grassley — who has won favor with the administration because of his role in confirming judicial nominees — and Durbin want a larger criminal justice bill that includes changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.
They’ve introduced legislation backed by more than a fourth of the Senate that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses, such as domestic violence.
Both senators say they’ve made a deal to not split prison reform from changes to sentencing guidelines, despite pressure from the White House. Separating the two provisions would all but kill any chance of getting sentencing reform through the GOP-controlled Congress.
“We’ve had such an overwhelming vote in the … Judiciary Committee that the two should be kept together for the reason that both of them are overwhelmingly supported within the committee,” Grassley told The Hill.
But Grassley and Durbin’s approach to criminal justice reform is anathema both to the administration, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions is staunchly opposed, and to GOP leaders in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to bring up previous criminal justice reform legislation despite the support of the then-Obama administration and nearly 40 senators. And some of the bill’s most vocal opponents, GOP Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.), are some of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill.
Instead, Republicans are pressing forward with a narrower bill that would provide funding for programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of inmates committing new crimes once released from prison.
A congressional aide close to the negotiations told The Hill the bill could get a vote on the House floor in early June despite its uncertain future in the Senate.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), while noting he’s open to either path forward on the issue, appeared skeptical that a prison reform bill would be able to get the 60 votes needed to ultimately clear the Senate.
“It’s how we get the votes, and I’m not sure how you do [with just that]. The way that that evolved was by talking about pairing the two,” he said when asked about doing only prison reform.
But House GOP lawmakers have an ally in Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, who has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
Cornyn wants the Senate to take up prison reform only, arguing that trying to pass a broader criminal justice reform bill — which he supported during the last Congress — will result in failure.
“I’m not willing to do nothing, and if that’s the alternative, to do this or to do nothing, I’m for doing what we can,” he said.
Asked if Durbin and Grassley’s stance was realistic, given the current political environment, Cornyn added: “Their opinion matters, but I wouldn’t say that’s the end of the discussion.”
House Republicans already made some changes to their prison reform bill in an attempt to win the support needed for it to pass that chamber.
But those changes did little to assuage either Grassley or Durbin, whose support would likely be critical if any legislation is to reach the Senate floor.
“For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms to prison sentencing,” the two said in a joint statement.
Cornyn says he’s open to trying to negotiate with Grassley, potentially floating that prison reform and sentencing reform could be moved separately. Another option, he said, could be to give Grassley floor time on an unrelated issue, though he didn’t specify what that would be.
“Even after we do the prison reform piece I’m still happy to build on that,” he said. “I’m not looking initially to get around him. I’m looking to engage him. And see if there’s something we might be able to agree on.”
But separating the two issues is unlikely to win over Durbin or Grassley, because sentencing reform is unlikely to pass on its own.
Asked about Cornyn’s offer, Durbin laughed before noting that McConnell would not bring up a stand-alone bill.
“John knows better. He knows that Sen. McConnell is not going to open the door for that,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who introduced the prison reform bill with Cornyn, said the Texas senator has been offering the chance to add an amendment to the prison reform bill either in the Judiciary Committee or once the bill hits the Senate floor, where Grassley and Durbin would need either a majority of the panel or the full Senate.
“It is everybody’s intention in the Senate to try to bring the … pieces together, and I think there’s still work to be done on the extent to which, if we take up the House measure, the sentencing piece has to be added, or whether it could be added by a floor vote,” he said.
He added that Cornyn had “been terrific” about making public assurances that a sentencing measure would be taken up on the floor.
But Grassley appears to be closing the door, for now, on negotiating with Cornyn. Instead, he said, he and Durbin are pushing forward with their bill, adding that he’s delivered that message to Kushner several times.
“[We’re going] to try to convince the White House that we’re right,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the president to have a bipartisan victory and to sign it, and that’s exactly what he needs for the midterm election.”
Lydia Wheeler contributed.