McConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that he will bring a bipartisan criminal justice bill up for a vote, marking a significant win for the legislation's supporters, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE

"At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that has been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill," McConnell said from the Senate floor. 

McConnell didn't specify when the Senate will vote but said he will "turn to" the legislation "as early as the end of this week." If the Senate is able to pass the measure, AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanEx-White House spokesman Raj Shah joins Fox Corporation as senior vice president Trump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud MORE (R-Wis.), said the House "will be ready to act" on the revised bill.

Backers and advocates have been publicly and privately lobbying McConnell for months to bring the bill to the floor, arguing that they have at least 70 votes in support of the legislation. The bill, spearheaded by Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyScandal in Puerto Rico threatens chance at statehood Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Democrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection MORE (R-Iowa) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations MORE (D-Ill.), merges a House-passed prison reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism with four changes to sentencing laws. 

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McConnell's remarks are a dramatic turnaround from last week, when he appeared to warn at a Wall Street Journal event that he did not have time to move the criminal justice bill this year, which he said could take up to 10 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,” McConnell said at the event. “This is a one-week to 10-day bill and I’ve got two weeks.”

McConnell and Cornyn estimated last week that a majority of the conference is either undecided or opposed to the bill. But since then, several Republican senators, including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz2 Republican senators introduce resolution to label antifa as domestic terrorists Ted Cruz: Trump's chances of winning reelection are '50-50' How to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy MORE (Texas) and David Perdue (Ga.), have publicly endorsed the measure.

In a major win for backers, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school MORE (R-Texas), McConnell's No. 2, also came out in support of the bill on Tuesday — a move advocates believe could help move other undecided GOP senators.

"I think we'll see a number of Republicans now come on board supporting this bill as amended," Cornyn told reporters. "People now know that we're going to vote on it, it's going to cause people to have to make a decision, but I'm pretty optimistic."

Durbin and Grassley have been circulating a draft that includes changes meant to win over more GOP support. The new version of the bill is expected to be released as soon as Tuesday.

"We've done everything that he and other Republicans have asked us to do: You have to have more than 60 votes. Two weeks ago, we decided that we had to do more compromising. .... You have to have the president on board, we have the president on board," Grassley said, when asked how McConnell got to allowing for a vote.

Grassley also told reporters that McConnell privately pushed back when the Iowa senator said during a recent phone conversation that he thought the Senate GOP leader was opposed to the bill. 

"I never heard him say he was against the bill. In fact, in one telephone conversation, I may have suggested he was against the bill. And he said, I have never said I'm against the bill," Grassley recounted. 

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

Republican supporters have estimated that they have roughly 30 yes votes within their own caucus. Durbin said on Tuesday that said support within the Democratic caucus was "pretty solid."

"I can't guarantee 100 percent, but it's pretty solid," he added, pressed on a number of supporters.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Cory Booker talks about 'geeking out' over Rosario Dawson's Marvel role Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals MORE (D-N.J.) added that no Democratic colleagues had told him that the changes aimed at winning over more Republicans would cost him their vote. 

"People in my caucus who are progressives who understand ... some elements of the bill, 90 percent of the beneficiaries will be African Americans," Booker said. "I would be deeply disappointed if anybody in our caucus votes against a bill that is going to disproportionally help low-income people and minorities." 

McConnell's decision comes days after Trump doubled down on publicly urging the GOP leader to bring up the bill for a vote.

"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 said in a tweet last Friday.

Though the criminal justice fight has broad support in both parties, bringing it to the floor tees up a nasty intra-Republican battle with a group of vocal conservative opponents.

Cornyn acknowledged that if opponents force them to go through all the procedural hurdles, it could force the Senate to work up until the end of the year. McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, warned that without an agreement, senators should be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Cornyn noted that McConnell's Christmas threat "provides a powerful incentive for people to cooperate."

"If we have to jump through all the procedural hoops, we're never going to get all our work done," Cornyn added.

In addition to a swath of Republican senators who have quietly raised concerns about the bill, the measure is also facing fierce opposition from a small group of Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonLawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei Five things to know about Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal Hillicon Valley: Trump gets pushback after reversing course on Huawei | China installing surveillance apps on visitors' phones | Internet provider Cloudflare suffers outage | Consumer groups look to stop Facebook cryptocurrency MORE (R-Ark.) has been deeply opposed to the legislation, which he has termed the "jailbreak bill, indicated on Tuesday that he won't go down without a fight on the Senate floor.

"I look forward to debating this bill on the Senate floor and introducing amendments to address its many remaining threats to public safety," Cotton said in a tweet.

Pressed if would object to leadership moving the bill quickly, Cotton said he would let his colleagues decide if "they want to let violent, repeat, serious felons out of prison."

Asked about the Senate working after Christmas, Cotton told reporters as he got in an elevator to go vote: "Merry Christmas."

-updated 12:31 p.m.