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Senate grapples with prison reform bill

Senate grapples with prison reform bill
© Greg Nash

Senators are under growing pressure to take up a prison reform bill that is a top priority for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report The Memo: Trump in a corner on Saudi Arabia Saudis say journalist killed in ‘fight’ at consulate; 18 detained MORE.

The bill got a boost of momentum after it passed the House last week in an overwhelming 360-59 vote, where only two GOP lawmakers voted against the legislation. Democratic critics of the measure said it is too narrow and pointed out it doesn’t include sentencing reform.

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The White House, supported by a coalition of outside groups, is urging the Senate to bring a bill to the floor. But there are obstacles in the upper chamber, as key members are pushing for different pieces of prison reform legislation.

Trump publicly called on Congress to work out a deal during a prison reform summit earlier this month, saying the legislation would help “restore the rule of law, keep dangerous criminals off our street, and help inmates get a second chance on life.”

“[The] strong bipartisan vote paves a path for action by the Senate,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added in a separate statement after the bill passed the House. 

The House-passed prison reform legislation would provide funding for programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of inmates committing new crimes once released from prison. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, and Democratic Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Democrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Senate poised to confirm Kavanaugh after bitter fight MORE (R.I.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

However, Senate negotiators are warning they are not close to a deal that would allow the prison reform bill to move quickly.

Instead, the fight is pitting two influential GOP senators — Cornyn and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October MORE (Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman — against each other as they jockey for competing bills.

“We’ve got work to do here on building consensus … but right now we don’t have it,” Cornyn said last week about what happens to prison reform in the Senate.

The GOP divisions could scuttle any chance that the Trump-backed legislation becomes law this year, with leadership unlikely to bring up legislation that would highlight divisions within their own party ahead of the midterm elections.

Both Cornyn and Grassley are signaling they plan to press forward with trying to build support for their own separate bills once the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., next week.

Asked if he would budge on his opposition to a prison reform–only bill, Grassley responded, “No.”

“We’re going to take up my bill. Or I should say, my bipartisan bill that’s got 28 co-sponsors — equal number Republicans and Democrats. ... What the House does through that legislation is about the equivalent of a spit in the ocean compared to what the problem is of too much imprisonment,” Grassley added.

Grassley and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin to Trump: ‘We’re the mob? Give me a break’ Senate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, have introduced broad criminal justice reform legislation that would pair prison reforms to changes in sentencing, including reductions in mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses.

Both senators say they’ve made a deal not to separate the prison and sentencing reform components despite pressure from the White House.

But that bill is unlikely to be taken up given GOP control of Congress and opposition from key members of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE was an outspoken opponent of the criminal justice reform bill when he served in the Senate.

Grassley acknowledged that he has not convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats slide in battle for Senate McConnell and wife confronted by customers at restaurant Pelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care MORE (R-Ky.) to bring the criminal justice reform bill to the floor.

“You’ve got to remember that McConnell doesn’t like the bill, and all I can say is that you ought to let a Republican president who needs a big, bipartisan victory have a bipartisan victory,” he said.

The Kentucky Republican did not move criminal justice reform legislation in 2015 or 2016 amid vocal pushback from four GOP senators. The then-Obama administration supported the bill, and senators in both parties said they had 60 votes to pass it.

Supporters of the narrower prison reform–only legislation are seizing on the opposition from key Republicans and the Trump administration as they push for their bill.

After a group of Democrats, including Durbin, sent a letter ahead of the House vote to Democrats urging them to oppose the prison reform bill, Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesAs Kanye goes to the White House, both sides credit Kushner for prison reform Bustos announces bid to become fourth-ranking Dem next year Why US creators urgently need Congress to support the CASE Act MORE (D-N.Y.) argued they were ignoring political reality. Jeffries wrote the House-passed bill along with Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsAs Kanye goes to the White House, both sides credit Kushner for prison reform House Republicans confident there won't be a government shutdown Lawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin MORE (R-Ga.).

“We have a Republican President. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate. While the Senate authors of the opposition letter support the all or nothing approach, the Majority Leader apparently does not. Those are the facts,” Jeffries wrote in a publicly released letter.

Cornyn added that the decision boils down to either passing prison reform or accepting that Congress will take no action for the foreseeable future in the criminal justice space.

But it’s unclear if McConnell would be willing to move a bill without Grassley’s support. And prison reform is facing new hurdles from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The New York Times reported late last week that Mark Inch, appointed to oversee the Federal Bureau of Prisons, resigned amid a “turf war” between Sessions and Kushner over the federal prison system.

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFlake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Susan Collins becomes top 2020 target for Dems MORE (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, is privately raising concerns about the bill. A spokeswoman for the senator said Cotton has “concerns with provisions in the bill pertaining to lenient treatment for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.”

Cotton, Sessions and GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Congress should work with Trump and not 'cowboy' on Saudi Arabia, says GOP senator US to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK MORE (Utah) were a small but vocal group of Republicans senators deeply opposed to broader criminal justice legislation that included both prison reform and changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Cornyn acknowledged that he has spoken to Cotton about trying to address his issues with the prison reform bill.

“I’ve told him we’re going to work with him and come up with something that I think he’ll be able to support,” Cornyn said, “but he did express some concerns.”