Democratic leader gives boost to criminal justice reform compromise

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

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSchumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever Senators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games Overnight Health Care: Watchdog finds DEA allowed more opioids even as overdose deaths rose | Judge temporarily blocks Georgia abortion law | Three states report more vaping deaths | Dem proposes new fix for surprise medical bills MORE (Ill.) — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — says he could support a compromise criminal justice reform bill that Republican colleagues presented to President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff 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 KushnerButtigieg knocks Trump as a 'walking conflict of interest' Biden's weak response to Trump is a lesson for Democratic candidates Mark Hamill zings Ivanka Trump for 'Star Wars' tweet MORE and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFarmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate Positive quotes from Iowa senators disappear from EPA's latest ethanol announcement MORE (R-Iowa).

Republican Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Republican lawmaker proposes transferring drone authority to local governments A decade of policymaking failures is to blame for new Syria crisis MORE (Utah), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCheney unveils Turkey sanctions legislation Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House MORE (S.C.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure Rand Paul: 'We deserve to know' identity of Trump whistleblower Bottom Line 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 McConnellPatient advocates launch drug pricing ad campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House 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 Anthony Booker2020 Democrats recognize Pronouns Day Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis MORE (N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate 2020 Democrats recognize Pronouns Day 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.