Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies
Negotiations on a criminal justice reform bill are pitting President Trump against some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a public warning shot to the White House this week, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Trump should not support a “jailbreak” by reducing mandatory minimum sentences.
“That foolish approach is not criminal justice reform. … [It would] undercut President Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order,” Cotton wrote.
Besides Cotton, other reliable allies of the White House, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), are opposing the administration’s approach, which would combine a House-passed prison reform bill with changes to sentencing and mandatory minimums that have wide, bipartisan support in the Senate.
Supporters say completing the bill would give the administration a needed win heading into November’s midterm elections.
Cotton argues it would make Trump and the GOP look weak on crime.
White House officials and supporters of a deal have been talking with Republican holdouts to try to convince them to back the proposed compromise, which they say would add roughly four sentencing reform provisions into the House bill, which currently focuses on recidivism and not sentencing laws.
The pending agreement is expected to add into the House bill lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug convictions and more exceptions for judges on applying mandatory minimums. It would also let judges avoid doubling up on convictions for drug offenders facing simultaneous charges, and retroactively apply the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which is aimed at reducing the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses.
A senior White House official said they had received largely positive feedback and have 30 to 32 locked down “yes” votes among Republican senators.
The official offered hope that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to bring everybody together to get this to a place where we have … most of the Republicans ready to vote for it,” the official said.
A spokesperson for Cotton said the senator has been in touch over what it would take for him to support a deal.
“Our office has been in communication with the [White House] and made clear what the senator would support,” said Caroline Tabler, Cotton’s communications director.
It’s not clear, however, that the administration is worried about winning over Cotton.
Supporters are moving forward and trying to build support within the GOP conference, signaling they view Cotton as a surmountable outlier.
“I view it like the handful of people who are trying to obstruct are kind of giving it their best shot and, again, at the end of the day, I think facts usually overcome scare tactics,” the senior White House official said.
If Cotton’s op-ed was meant to build opposition to the potential deal within the Senate Republican Conference, officials suggested it appeared to have backfired.
The senior White House official said that nearly a dozen Republican senators had reached out in wake of the Wall Street Journal article to say they didn’t agree with Cotton. A second White House official confirmed the outreach.
But opposition from a small, but vocal, group of critics has been a years-long roadblock for criminal justice reform in the Senate, where GOP leadership has been reluctant to put a spotlight on intra-caucus fights.
In addition to Cotton, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) threatened to do everything within their power to block a 2015 criminal justice reform bill, which had the support of the White House.
Hatch has since come on board with criminal justice legislation, and Sessions is now attorney general. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has warned him to “stay out” of the negotiations.
Perdue, unlike Cotton, has stayed publicly on the sidelines amid the current round of talks.
Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), said the Lee had “productive conversations” with Cotton and Perdue last week.
Republicans won’t be able to pass a criminal justice deal on their own. A separate Senate bill, spearheaded by Grassley and Durbin, has the support of 32 senators, including Democrats like Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). The White House is hoping electoral politics won’t get in the way of them supporting the pending agreement.
“[If] people vote against it, I think it would just be really bad vote for them because this bill does a lot of good things,” the senior White House official said of potential Democratic opposition.
Criminal justice legislation got new life late last month after being stalled for years on Capitol Hill.
Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, has been meeting with lawmakers for more than a year on the issue, and senators credit him with being a driving force behind the new momentum.
Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have also long urged Trump to get involved in the criminal justice negotiations, arguing it was their best shot at getting a bill through Congress amid opposition from some Republicans.
“We need for the president, the president of the United States, to say this is a priority for us as well. Let’s do this criminal justice reform, to include prison reform. … What a breakthrough that would be,” Durbin told reporters in a joint press conference with Grassley earlier this year.
Trump held an event on prison reform last week, and at a White House meeting earlier this month signaled support for criminal justice reform.
The senior White House official said that while negotiations are ongoing and no final decision has been made, “there is a very strong chance” the president will support the final package.
“[That] means that a lot of the people will want to be with him on it,” the official said. “And again, they know that the president’s very tough on crime and if he’s supporting something then they know it’s not going to be a soft on crime bill.”
But Cornyn appeared skeptical that Trump, despite his deep popularity with GOP voters, would be able to change the dynamics in the Senate.
“I don’t think people are going to change their strongly held positions on the sentencing reform part,” he said. “So my goal is to achieve what’s possible.