Trump’s backing may not be enough on criminal justice reform

Trump’s backing may not be enough on criminal justice reform
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE’s support for a criminal justice reform bill might not be enough to get the legislation through the Senate, where it faces vocal opposition from conservatives and has won lukewarm support at best from GOP leaders.

Trump held a White House event on the issue Wednesday in a public showing that gives the legislation real momentum.

Yet in a Senate where there is deep-rooted opposition to the bill among conservatives, and where lawmakers are running out of time, Trump’s support might not make the difference.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFormer Romney strategist joins anti-Trump Lincoln Project Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Rosenstein to testify as part of Graham's Russia investigation probe MORE (R-Iowa) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight MORE (D-Ill.) are trying to build public pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks MORE (R-Ky.) to bring the bill to the floor this year in the wake of Trump’s efforts.

Grassley is leaning into the president’s support, arguing McConnell “ought to be helping the president get his program through.”

He’s also playing the loyalty card, saying the GOP leader owes him after he successfully guided two Supreme Court nominees through the Senate, along with a record-breaking number of appeals judges.

“Sen. McConnell and I have had a very close working relationship on judges. We've been very very successful. … We've made history and we've got two good people on the Supreme Court and I would like reciprocity from the leader on what I've done in our unified effort to get judges,” Grassley said Thursday.

GOP leaders have been noncommittal about a floor vote and have pointed to a tight congressional calendar that leaves the Senate just a few weeks at best to complete its work for the year.

Durbin, asked what it would take to get a bill done this year, pointed directly to McConnell, who has refused to move previous criminal justice agreements.

“He’s a crafty leader. He’s not going to make an unequivocal commitment,” Durbin said.

McConnell told reporters this week that supporters needed to introduce the bill and whip it to prove they have the more than 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster.

Then and only then would leadership weigh it against other end-of-the-year priorities.

White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump's strategy to stay in office Trump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators Press: King Donald's goal - no checks, no balances MORE, Trump’s son-in-law, met with McConnell earlier this year, when the GOP leader asked that the bill be held until after the election, according to a White House official.

He said at the time that if supporters could show they had more than the 60 votes, he would try to bring it to the floor for a vote.

The official said supporters are “optimistic” they will get more than 60 votes, but would only say “we’ll see” if it gets through the Senate this year.

Conservatives have been the bill’s opponents and are not backing down even after Trump’s public show of support.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s No. 2, stressed that the only way criminal justice reform would get done this year is if every senator gave consent to speed up floor action.

“Any individual senator can slow this down, so unless can we achieve some consensus it’s looking like it’s a harder and harder thing to move in the lame duck,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a particularly huge problem if we don’t get it done this year.”

The bill would still need to clear the House if it can get through the Senate.The White House official said talks with the House had been "very constructive," and supporters are optimistic a criminal justice bill could easily pass after the chamber approved a prison reform bill with 360 votes in May .

The White House and outside advocacy groups are expected to lobby hard on the issue once senators return from the Thanksgiving recess.

Cornyn said if Trump gets involved in the lobbying “it helps,” but added that senators are still waiting to see text. The bill was unveiled early Thursday evening giving senators the Thanksgiving recess to review the legislation.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Comey, Rice, Clapper among GOP senator's targets for subpoenas amid Obama-era probe Schumer: GOP should 'stop sitting on their hands' on coronavirus bill MORE (R-S.C.), who helped negotiate the bill with Grassley, Durbin and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting MORE (R-Utah) urged Trump to personally get involved in winning over skeptics.

“I hope he will,” Graham said. “I just think now is the time to do it because if you carry it over to the next year you start all over again.”

Both Sens. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonDemocrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Chinese official accuses US of 'pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War' MORE (R-Ark.), an ally of Trump’s, and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who is mulling a gubernatorial bid in his home state, want a hearing on the legislation—a demand that would all but guarantee it gets kicked to next year.

Cotton fired off a tweet at Grassley — in response to the Iowa senator’s warning about GOP senators trying to sink his bill and spread false information — saying he should hold a hearing and “release bill text to allow for full public discussion.”

Cotton’s office also circulated a letter from the National Sheriff’s Association, the Major Cities Chief, and the Major County Sheriffs of America that called the bill as currently drafted a “social experiment,” warning that without changes it “creates a high-risk path for dangerous criminals with gun crime histories to early release from prison.

Grassley snipped back at Cotton, rejecting his request for a hearing and accusing him of trying to stall the legislation.

“He doesn’t like our bill and so anything he can do to stall it, he wants to stall it,” he said.

In a potentially bigger threat to the bill, Kennedy warned that he doesn’t believe there is enough time to pass legislation this year, that he wants a hearing and that he will object if leadership tries to bring up the bill on the floor. The last move would effectively kill the bill until next year unless McConnell wants to dedicate days of floor time to the issue.

“A dangerous person who is properly incarcerated can’t mug your sister,” Kennedy said. “My main concern about the legislation is public safety and I will be looking at it through a public safety lens. ...If we’re not careful with this, somebody is going to get killed.”