Democratic leader gives boost to criminal justice reform compromise

Democratic leader gives boost to criminal justice reform compromise
© Anna Moneymaker

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (Ill.) — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — says he could support a compromise criminal justice reform bill that Republican colleagues presented to President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE and senior White House officials three weeks ago.

In doing so, Durbin would become the first Democratic senator to support the legislation, which would combine a House-passed prison reform bill with sentencing reform provisions from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

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The compromise is being pushed by senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerWatchdog finds no money has flowed out of agency tasked by Trump admin to fight pandemic Watchdog cites 13 Trump officials who violated Hatch Act before 2020 election McCain blasts Graham for refuting funeral remark about Kushner, Ivanka Trump MORE and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Iowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (R-Iowa).

Republican Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe congressional debate over antitrust: It's about time McConnell looks for way out of debt ceiling box Senators make bipartisan push to block 0M weapons sale to Saudis MORE (Utah), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (S.C.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDems erupt over GOP 'McCarthyism' as senators vet Biden bank watchdog pick Why Democrats' prescription drug pricing provision would have hurt seniors Telehealth was a godsend during the pandemic; Congress should keep the innovation going MORE (S.C.) also support the proposal.

Durbin endorsed merging the House-passed First Step Act, which some Democrats have criticized, with four provisions from the Senate’s sentencing reform bill.

Asked if the compromise is acceptable, Durbin said, “Yes." 

After a pause, he added: "I’ve been working on that.”

He urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) to schedule it for a vote this year, perhaps in the lame-duck session after the election.

“If we have a bill that has such overwhelming bipartisan support, deals not only [with] criminal sentencing but prison reform, and the support of the White House — I hope — there’s no reason we shouldn’t consider it this year,” he said.

Durbin said he’s not persuaded by arguments to wait on prison and sentencing reform until next year in hopes that Democrats take back the House and perhaps the Senate as well.

“Last time we had a sentencing reform bill, I passed it, it was almost 10 years ago. That’s how often you get these opportunities. So if we have a bipartisan bill supported by the White House, I hope we can seize that opportunity,” he added.

However, Emily Hampsten, a spokeswoman for Durbin, told The Hill that the senator hasn’t yet signed off on a final deal.

“There’s still no deal and he hasn’t endorsed anything yet,” she said in an email.

In a follow-up statement released Tuesday afternoon, Durbin laid out several additional demands.

We’re now having constructive conversations with the White House about a possible compromise package including key sentencing reforms and fixes to the FIRST STEP Act, but nothing is final yet,” he said.

“With Republicans in the majority, any agreement must be endorsed by the President and include a commitment from Republican leaders to move it through Congress and get it to the President’s desk.”

Durbin’s positive talk about the emerging deal is a big boost for getting something done on criminal justice reform in 2018 and could outweigh the skepticism of two other prominent Democratic voices on the issue, Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPoll: Biden's job approval gains two points Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (Calif.), who are also weighing 2020 presidential campaigns.

Durbin’s backing would be all the more significant because he co-signed a letter dated May 17, along with Booker and Harris, that criticized the First Step Act, a pillar of the emerging compromise, as a “step backwards.”

The letter noted the objections of civil rights advocates who argued the First Step Act would exclude too many incarcerated people from the reform process and possibly exacerbate racial and socio-economic disparities.

Since then, Senate negotiators have proposed making corrections to the House bill and adding four major sentencing reform provisions.

The sentencing reform provisions would give judges more flexibility in handing out sentences to nonviolent drug offenders, it would narrow the sentencing disparity for crack- and powder cocaine–related offenses, and it would in some cases stop simultaneous convictions from being treated as prior offenses for the purposes of sentencing.

While the Senate proposals have helped change Durbin’s mind, Booker and Harris have yet to endorse the compromise.

"The bipartisan bill that we passed out, which was negotiated extensively, was the compromises that I wanted to make," Booker told The Hill last week. "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.

-- Updated: 5:33 p.m.