GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill

Republican tensions over a President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE-backed criminal justice reform bill are spilling into public view as lawmakers run out of time to finish work on the legislation.

Supporters of the legislation believe they have momentum, pointing to the growing number of senators who have come out in support of the bill. On Friday, Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump hit with fierce backlash over interference remarks MORE (R-N.C.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOcasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists MORE (R-Texas) both announced they were backing it.

Separately, Trump doubled down on his demand for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) to schedule a vote.

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“Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform. It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support. It will also help a lot of people, save taxpayer dollars, and keep our communities safe. Go for it Mitch!,” Trump tweeted Friday.

Despite those entreaties, McConnell has hinted the legislation will have to wait because of division within the Republican conference over its merits, as well as the ticking clock.

McConnell, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event, questioned if the “extremely controversial” legislation could be dealt with in the Senate’s final days.

“It’s extremely divisive inside the Senate Republican Conference, in fact there are more members in my conference that are either against it or undecided than or for it,” he said. He argued the bill would take up to 10 days to complete and noted he had only two weeks to complete work on a host of other issues.

Two sources told The Hill that the official Senate whip count came back with 16 Republican senators as hard “yes” votes, a minority of the 51-member conference.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s No. 2, told reporters that he had talked to the White House about the bill this week and believed there is a “path” to getting a “majority of the majority” to support the legislation, but that Republicans aren’t there yet.

“Right now we have a majority of the Republican conference either undecided or no,” he added.

Supporters insist the “yes” votes within the GOP caucus is much higher and stands at roughly 30 senators.

“We need to get a vote. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t take a vote. You’ve got an overwhelming supermajority in the Senate and I think a corresponding supermajority in the House that would support this,” Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Utah) said at a Washington Post event focused on criminal justice reform.

Supporters are circulating draft legislation that includes changes intended to win over more Republicans, and they are expected to roll out a revised bill as soon as Friday.

The changes are expected to include expanding the list of crimes that exclude an individual from the bill’s “earned time” credits, which shave time off a prison sentence. Senators are also discussing eliminating a “safety valve” portion of the bill which gives judges some discretion in going around mandatory minimums.

Advocates accuse Cornyn of giving McConnell “bad information” and being an “obstructionist” for a Trump-backed priority.

“Cornyn is taking a position that is contrary to what the White House wants. The president wants this bill on the floor and Cornyn is obstructing,” said Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.

A spokesman for Lee, asked about Cornyn, called the No. 2 GOP senator’s comments “false,” saying supporters have 27 hard “yes” votes.

“Cornyn isn’t asking yes or no. He is asking would you prefer to do this now or later. So even though a majority of the conference would vote yes if the bill was on the floor now, Cornyn is whipping it in a way to say they would rather do it next year. This is not how Cornyn normally whips a bill,” the spokesman added.

Cornyn has increasingly become the target for advocates supporting the bill. The Justice Action Network, which supports the legislation, is running digital ads urging Cornyn to support bringing the bill to the floor.

Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, said that support within the Republican caucus is “overwhelming” and called the rolling debate a “distraction.”  

Asked about the divergent whip counts, she added: “If you’ve got competing whip counts put the bill on the floor, we’ll see who is right.”

Cornyn brushed aside questions about the different counts, saying: “Well, we only have one whip.”

“It’s amazing what senators will tell colleagues sometimes and then when they talk to the whip and we say well, you’re shooting with real bullets here now, we need to tell the leader where we are. Sometimes there’s a little more nuance to it,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Supporting the military means supporting military spouses MORE (R-Ark.), who opposes the bill, echoed Cornyn, saying that senators, when approached by a bill sponsor, will “hem [and] haw,” but “then they tell the whip they don’t want to touch the bill with a 10-foot pole.”

Supporters argue the bill needs to get passed this year or Democrats, who will take back the majority in January, could try to renegotiate the legislation and drive it further to the left.

But McConnell argued the widespread support for the bill would make it likely to pass next year, when there is more time on the congressional calendar.

“I’m pretty confident given the broad support that it has that it would pass next year in any event because a lot of Democrats are for it. The Democrats now have the House,” McConnell said.

With time running short, supporters are trying to find other ways to get the bill to Trump’s desk by the end of the year, including the possibility of attaching it to the end-of-the-year government funding bill.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally MORE (R-S.C.), asked about where the votes stood on the bill, described the support as “overwhelming.”

“My goal is to put it on the end-of-the-year spending bill,” Graham said. “I think the leaders of the House, you need to ask them if they would be willing to do that.”

Both opponents of the bill and senators deeply involved in the funding negotiations are warning that would backfire, roiling shutdown talks and increasing the chances that Congress works through the Christmas holiday.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill Trump's border funding comes back from the dead MORE (R-Ala.) said he didn’t believe the reform legislation should be added into the funding bill.

“The fewer things we put on the [appropriations] bill, the better chances of passage,” he said.

Graham, asked about Shelby’s opposition, quipped: “Well, that’s one no, we’ll see what the rest of them say.”