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2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump

2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump
© Greg Nash

Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerProgressive lawmakers press DHS chief on immigration detention Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico Biden's DOJ civil rights nominee faces sharp GOP criticism MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Florida nurse arrested, accused of threatening to kill Harris Oddsmakers say Harris, not Biden, most likely to win 2024 nomination, election MORE (D-Calif.) are not responding warmly to overtures from the White House and congressional Republicans on a possible criminal justice reform deal, a sign that 2020 presidential politics could prove a hurdle to legislation.

As outspoken advocates of criminal justice reform and the only two African-American members of the Senate Democratic Conference, Booker and Harris say they are not eager to strike a deal with President TrumpDonald TrumpDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Taylor Greene defends 'America First' effort, pushes back on critics MORE that they view as a watered-down version of one reached with Senate Republicans.

Both Democrats, who are considered top-tier contenders to become their party's nominee going up against Trump in 2020, insist they will review any measure that the president might endorse. But striking a deal on criminal justice reform that proves unpopular with the party’s base could prove costly.

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GOP negotiators predict that the pair will likely come out against a deal, while Republicans say Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' For a win on climate, let's put our best player in the game Biden angers Democrats by keeping Trump-era refugee cap MORE (Ill.) has been more active in bipartisan talks and is seen as more receptive to a compromise. 

“We haven’t heard from Cory yet about taking meetings. He’s been more in the obstruction category,” said a Republican negotiator. “Durbin’s actually been working with us. Booker and Harris, they have shown no interest in engaging even though there’s a possibility here to help a lot of people.”

A second Republican negotiator confirmed that account.

“I’m kind of getting the feeling that Durbin is realistic enough to know that things get done here in smaller steps,” the source said. “It may be a tough sell for Booker.”

The House passed a prison reform bill earlier this year, but liberal activists quickly came out against the bill. Still, any compromise that Trump is likely to sign this year would be largely based on that legislation, GOP sources say. 

Booker — a co-sponsor of the Senate’s bipartisan prison and sentencing reform, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — denied the GOP claim that he’s not engaged in the negotiations but noted that he has already compromised with Republicans on criminal justice reform legislation.

"The bipartisan bill that we passed out, which was negotiated extensively, was the compromises that I wanted to make," Booker told The Hill. "For me to give up on something that was negotiated. I find it hard to think that would cut mustard for me."

"I'm still open to seeing what would happen, but remember we fought really hard for what was in that bill and to have it be vacated to get an even more watered-down one is concerning to me," he added. 

Harris, who is also a co-sponsor of the legislation, said she hasn’t yet reviewed the latest version of compromise legislation that a group of Republicans presented to Trump right before the August recess. But she indicated a strong preference for the Senate legislation.

"I'll have to take a look at it. I do have some concerns about bifurcating. I think it was a really well done comprehensive bill in its original form," she said Thursday.

The nation’s high incarceration rate, especially affecting black males, could be a focal point for Democratic candidates gearing up for the 2020 presidential primary.

While it has garnered less attention than other hot-button issues such as economic inequality and health care, it popped up at various times throughout the 2016 election.

Michelle Alexander, a human rights advocate, argued in The Nation magazine in 2016 that then-Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE didn’t deserve the black vote because her husband as president "presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history."

She noted that former President Clinton signed into law a crime bill that mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders and backed the 100-1 sentencing disparity for crack- versus powder cocaine-related offenses.

Liberal activists are urging lawmakers to take action on criminal justice reform, but have largely opposed the House-passed legislation and have pushed for something that in their view has more teeth.

For example, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an influential advocacy group on the left, urged lawmakers to vote against the House bill, calling it “misguided” and citing several “grave concerns.”

Hilary Shelton, the Washington bureau director of the NAACP, argued in a May memo that the House bill “may, in fact, result in some people staying in prison longer and it may exacerbate the racial and ethnic disparities of those who are incarcerated.”

A group of GOP senators including Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley: Iowa can't afford to be 'babysitting' unaccompanied minors Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle On The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire MORE (Iowa), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeBiden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Hillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee MORE (Utah), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWall Street spent .9B on campaigns, lobbying in 2020 election: study Biden aide: Ability to collect daily intel in Afghanistan 'will diminish' Leaving Afghanistan: Is it victory or defeat? MORE (S.C.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Tim Scott to participate in GOP event in Iowa Shocking killing renews tensions over police MORE (S.C.), support a proposal that would combine with House-passed prison reform bill, the First Step Act, with four sentencing reform provisions from the bipartisan Senate bill.

A senior White House official earlier this month described the president as “positively inclined” toward the combined House and Senate bills.

But Booker this week described the House-passed prison reform bill as something that “sets us backward.”

“That bill alone, to me, I think pushes us back. It doesn’t even take a step forward,” he said.

The compromise that GOP senators discussed with Trump earlier this month would make some changes to the House bill that Booker described as “good corrections,” but they may not go far enough.

Booker emphasized this week that he’s letting Durbin take the lead in talking to Republican colleagues.

"Durbin and I have been deep up in this since the very beginning. He and I talk on a regular basis about the details about what he's doing when he's in the room,” he said.

Harris said she hasn’t looked at the emerging legislation “since I last had meetings and talked about it about a month ago.”