Democrats who are mulling 2020 presidential bids are split over whether to support criminal justice reform and give President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump 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 DurbinDick DurbinManchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials Swalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down Schumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates 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.
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple Biden 'profoundly disappointed' after voting rights push fails in Senate Madame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple 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 McConnellBiden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Biden clarifies any Russian movement into Ukraine 'is an invasion' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks 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 KushnerKushner investment firm raises more than B: report Trump: Netanyahu 'never wanted peace' with Palestinians Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah 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 BookerDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Bass raises nearly million since launching LA mayor campaign CNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee 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 JeffriesFury over voting rights fight turns personal on Capitol Hill Senate GOP blocks election bill, setting up filibuster face-off Clyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' 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 CollinsJan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Lobbying world Sunday shows preview: Biden administration confronts inflation spike 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 SandersBernie SandersDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Briahna Joy Gray: Last-minute push for voting legislation felt 'perfomative' Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service MORE (I-Vt.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownDemocrats see good chance of Garland prosecuting Trump On the Money — Student borrowers stare down rising prices Biden selects Sarah Bloom Raskin, two others for Fed board MORE (D-Ohio) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill Senate GOP blocks election bill, setting up filibuster face-off 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) TesterSchumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Democrats' filibuster gambit unravels MORE (D-Mont.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Last-minute push for voting legislation felt 'perfomative' Manchin: Biden spending plan talks would start 'from scratch' Manchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Voting rights and Senate wrongs Swalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down 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.”