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 TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit 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 DurbinBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines 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 HarrisWant to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Will Pence primary Trump — and win? MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause and wipe out K per borrower Senate confirms Biden's Air Force secretary 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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing 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 KushnerWashington Post calls on Democrats to subpoena Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows for testimony on Jan. 6 Unsealed documents detail Trump and Biden efforts on reporter records 'Just say we won,' Giuliani told Trump aides on election night: book 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 BookerSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Congress can make progress on fighting emissions with Zero Food Waste Act 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 JeffriesJeffries: 'Sick and cynical' for GOP to blame Pelosi for Jan. 6 Democrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Progressive fighting turns personal on internal call over antitrust bills 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 CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor 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 SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE (I-Vt.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Ohio) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review 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) TesterNative Americans are targets of voter suppression too The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (D-Mont.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy: Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas review | Biden admin reportedly aims for 40 percent of drivers using EVs by 2030 |  Lack of DOD action may have caused 'preventable' PFAS risks Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas moratorium Feehery: It's time for Senate Republicans to play hardball on infrastructure 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 GrassleyOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada 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.”