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 TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey 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 calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal 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 HarrisThe symbol of 'Wakanda' and black political vision Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary Sanders dominates, Buttigieg surges in 2020 social media battle MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenColbert links large 2020 Dem field to Avengers: 'A group of every available person in the universe' Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary Sanders dominates, Buttigieg surges in 2020 social media battle 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 McConnellElection agency limps into 2020 cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? Dems charge ahead on immigration 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 KushnerDemocrats are playing voters on their fantasies for impeachment Author of book on Kushners mocks Jared: He couldn't get a TSA PreCheck without Trump's help What Jared Kushner has to tell Donald Trump on immigration 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 BookerBooker fundraises off Biden announcement The symbol of 'Wakanda' and black political vision The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' 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 JeffriesDems attack Barr's credibility after report of White House briefings on Mueller findings The Hill's 12:30 Report: Assange faces US charges after dramatic arrest Dem leader: Trump's Fed picks like something out of 'SNL' 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 CollinsHouse Judiciary chairman subpoenas former White House lawyer McGahn Top Judiciary Republican reviews less-redacted Mueller report Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general 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) SandersElection analyst says Biden could face uphill battle attracting small-dollar donors Gillibrand 'not worried' about being 'discounted' in 2020 race Biden's sloppy launch may cost him MORE (I-Vt.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Treasury misses second Dem deadline on Trump tax returns | Waters renews calls for impeachment | Dem wants Fed pick to apologize for calling Ohio cities 'armpits of America' | Stocks reach record high after long recovery Sherrod Brown asks Trump Fed pick why he referred to Cleveland, Cincinnati as 'armpits of America' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Ohio) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyCongress can open financial institutions to legal cannabis industry with SAFE Banking Act Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates More than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts 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) Tester20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall Overnight Energy: Bipartisan Senate group seeks more funding for carbon capture technology | Dems want documents on Interior pick's lobbying work | Officials push to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US Bipartisan senators want 'highest possible' funding for carbon capture technology MORE (D-Mont.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCain says he withdrew from Fed consideration because of 'pay cut' On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed 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 GrassleyCongress can retire the retirement crisis On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report 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.”