Criminal justice reform splits 2020 Democrats

Democrats who are mulling 2020 presidential bids are split over whether to support criminal justice reform and give President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE one of his biggest bipartisan accomplishments.

The decision to support or oppose the bill is a significant policy decision for 2020 hopefuls. The issue has split groups on the left and is sure to come up in presidential primary debates next year. 

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin: Trump pressuring acting AG in Cohen probe is 'no surprise' Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster MORE (Ill.), the chief Democratic negotiator, has agreed to move the legislation to the right in recent days to mollify Republican critics, but that has divided fellow Democrats who are eyeing the White House.

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Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKamala Harris criticized by Jamaican father over marijuana joke Harris adds key Clinton aide, women of color to 2020 campaign: report Coast Guard lieutenant arrested, accused of planning domestic terrorism MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenCoast Guard lieutenant arrested, accused of planning domestic terrorism Hillicon Valley: Microsoft reveals new Russian hack attempts | Google failed to disclose hidden microphone | Booker makes late HQ2 bid | Conservative group targets Ocasio-Cortez over Amazon Trump campaign fundraising on Bernie Sanders's M haul MORE (D-Mass..), a prominent voice on the left, are undecided about whether to support the legislation. 

Harris said she is balancing the “ideal” against not letting “perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Warren said she has heard mixed feedback from advocates of sentencing reform who are divided over whether the legislation goes far enough.

“We’re still looking at the details. Overall, it’s not nearly as comprehensive as we need but it appears to be an important first step,” she said, adding, “I’ve heard from groups who are pleased that there has been some effort made and other groups that are sharply disappointed they can’t do more.” 

Passing criminal justice reform would mark one of Trump’s biggest bipartisan accomplishments. 

His biggest bipartisan achievement to date was the spending deal that Republican and Democratic leaders reached earlier this year that increased spending by $300 billion over 2018 and 2019.

But that deal was more the work of GOP congressional leaders, and Trump later threatened to veto it, although he eventually signed it into law. 

Trump has endorsed the pending legislation, but backers of the bill want him to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFox News has covered Ocasio-Cortez more than any 2020 Dem besides Warren: analysis Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle MORE (R-Ky.) harder to schedule a vote in the lame-duck session. 

Democratic strategists predict Trump won’t get much political traction out of the bill, which is being championed by his son-in-law, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerFive things to know about Trump confidant Tom Barrack Dems open new front against Trump Dems launch investigation into Trump administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia MORE, who is a senior White House adviser. 

“His whole deal is he plays to his base, period,” said Democratic strategist Mike Lux. “I don’t think it matters to him. If it did, he would have tried to be more bipartisan earlier in his term. And I don’t think there’s anybody who would give him any credit if he got one or two bipartisan bills passed.”

Instead, the diverging Democratic views about whether the pending criminal justice reform bill is strong enough has more to do with locking up the Democratic base ahead of the 2020 primary. 

“What happens, particularly with people interested in the nomination, is kind of a bidding war for the party base. I see that developing among Democrats. Who can be more zealously in favor of criminal justice reform than the next person?” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. 

A Senate Democratic aide said that because of Harris’s long career as a criminal prosecutor, she may be careful about backing sentencing reform legislation that is later panned by constituent groups as weak.

Democratic strategists think her record of prosecutions may come up in attacks ahead of the 2020 primary should she decide to run for the White House. 

Democratic negotiators have made a variety of concessions to pick up Republican support, such as expanding the list of crimes that would be excluded from better treatment in prison and sentencing leniency. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to expand that list,” Durbin said, noting that crimes involving pornography and sexual predation are among those that have been excluded from leniency.

He added, “There are some areas in criminal sentencing that are very important to me and I’ve made three substantial concessions in that area and I’m not going further.”

Durbin is now under pressure from Republicans to limit the so-called safety valve provision that would give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders who are cooperating with the government. He says he would consider changes to shore up GOP support. 

Durbin has a powerful ally in Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCoast Guard lieutenant arrested, accused of planning domestic terrorism Hillicon Valley: Microsoft reveals new Russian hack attempts | Google failed to disclose hidden microphone | Booker makes late HQ2 bid | Conservative group targets Ocasio-Cortez over Amazon Jussie Smollett officially a suspect in alleged Chicago attack MORE (D-N.J.), a prominent White House hopeful, who is now solidly behind the Senate’s bipartisan criminal justice reform compromise after being skeptical of the House-passed legislation earlier this year. 

Earlier this year, Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesWhy Omar’s views are dangerous The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? Congress hits gas on border deal MORE (D-N.Y.) went after Senate Democrats, including Booker, after they criticized the bipartisan bill that cleared the House. Jeffries and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsDems seize on Times bombshell to push allegations of Trump obstruction The Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales MORE (R-Ga.) wrote the House measure. 

“The bill has moved considerably since then,” Booker said of the pending compromise compared to what the legislation looked like at the end of July.

A Republican negotiator complained in August that Booker had been “more in the obstruction category.”

Booker now says it’s “a very good bill.”

Other senators in the Democratic caucus mulling presidential campaigns in 2020 are also on board. 

Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBernie Sanders to sign pledge affirming he will run as a Democrat Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Hillicon Valley: Microsoft reveals new Russian hack attempts | Google failed to disclose hidden microphone | Booker makes late HQ2 bid | Conservative group targets Ocasio-Cortez over Amazon MORE (I-Vt.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThe Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Trump, Dems open drug price talks | FDA warns against infusing young people's blood | Facebook under scrutiny over health data | Harris says Medicare for all isn't socialism On The Money: Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive | Dems question IRS on new tax forms | Warren rolls out universal child care proposal | Illinois governor signs bill for minimum wage MORE (D-Ohio) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats The border deal: What made it in, what got left out Lawmakers introduce bill to fund government, prevent shutdown MORE (D-Ore.) say they support the legislation. 

“All of us would like to see it go further but this is a step in the right direction,” Merkley said Tuesday. 

Moderate Democrats such as Sens. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterHow the border deal came together GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Border talks stall as another shutdown looms MORE (D-Mont.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinGabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (D-W.Va.) say they also back it.

The legislation merges the House-passed prison reform bill known as the First Step Act with sentencing reform provisions crafted by the Senate. 

Liberal groups have criticized the House component of the legislation, but they also recognize this might be their only chance in years to pass sentencing reform. 

Hilary Shelton, the Washington bureau director of the NAACP, warned in a memo earlier this year that the House bill could “result in some people staying in prison longer” and “may exacerbate the racial and ethnic disparities of those who are incarcerated.”

But Durbin on Tuesday predicted he would be able to round up a large group of Democrats to support the legislation.  

“Cory Booker and I can bring together a substantial majority of Democrats,” he said during an event Tuesday sponsored by The Washington Post. 

On the Republican side of the aisle, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Drug pricing fight centers on insulin On The Money: Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive | Dems question IRS on new tax forms | Warren rolls out universal child care proposal | Illinois governor signs bill for minimum wage MORE (R-Iowa), a co-sponsor of the legislation, is stepping up pressure on McConnell to schedule it for a floor vote.

Grassley on Tuesday said the legislation should take priority over judicial nominees, which also fall under his panel’s jurisdiction. McConnell has made clear his No. 1 priority is confirming the president’s judicial nominees.

“We don’t have to deal with the Democratic House of Representatives when we do our human resources job that the Constitution gives the Senate. It would be a very legitimate trade-off if time is a factor,” Grassley told The Washington Post Live Tuesday morning. 

“Doing two less judges to get a criminal justice reform bill would be a very good trade-off as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “For the benefit for the president, for the benefit of bipartisan compromise.”