Senate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill

Senators are heading toward a contentious floor fight as GOP leadership tries to squeeze in a White House-backed criminal justice bill by the end of the year.

The legislation, despite being supported by President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE, faces entrenched opposition from conservatives, who argue it would let dangerous, repeat criminals out of jail. They’ve given no sign of backing down in the wake of Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE’s (R-Ky.) surprise decision to give the bill a vote.

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GOP leaders, backed by the administration, are pushing forward as they try to get the bill across the floor with only days left until the end of the session and a stalemated shutdown fight looming at the end of next week.

McConnell teed up an initial test vote for Monday, when supporters will need to show they have 60 votes to move the legislation forward.

If that vote is successful, leadership thinks the bill could be wrapped up as late as Wednesday by allowing opponents the opportunity to have amendments considered to the measure.

“My impression is that people are not going to string this out unnecessarily for procedural reasons as long as they get an opportunity to make their arguments and have a vote on their amendment,” said Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bipartisan House bill calls for strategy to protect 5G networks from foreign threats Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' MORE (R-Texas), who announced support for the legislation this week.

While quick, the battle would still put the spotlight on a divisive issue for the GOP, something McConnell typically avoids. Tensions have been running high.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said on Thursday that while he hadn’t finished reading the criminal justice legislation, he was concerned it could lead to changes that would get people killed.

He warned colleague from the Senate floor this week that in considering the bill, “please think about more than just the criminals.”

He also said Thursday that it was a mistake to not hold a public hearing on the bill and predicated that “many” other senators are wary of the legislation but are keeping quiet because of Trump’s support for it.

“I think there are many senators who are very nervous about this bill and don’t like it and are opposed to it. I think some are reluctant to say anything because of the White House support. My feeling about it is, I support President Trump, but sometimes reasonable people disagree,” Kennedy said. 

Trump threw his support behind the legislation in November and doubled down in publicly pressuring McConnell last week. In a tweet, he wrote that the bill “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!”

That hasn’t been enough to win over every GOP senator, though Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTop GOP senator: 'More harassment than oversight' in House Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Top Republican says Senate unlikely to vote on any election security bills MORE (R-Mo.), a member of Senate leadership, predicted that “slightly more than half” of the GOP conference and as many as 30 of the 51 GOP senators could back it.

Kennedy and Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment MORE (R-Ark.) are expected to get votes on three amendments to change the bill, including requiring that the victims or families of victims are notified when an individual is released. Another change would be to make re-arrest data for those released publicly available, as well as information on prior offenses by those released and the crimes for which they were imprisoned.

The Kennedy-Cotton amendments would also add to the list of approximately 10 offenses that would exclude someone from being eligible for the bill’s earned time credits, which could be used to shorten sentences.

The crimes, according to a copy of the amendment obtained by The Hill, would include offenses relating to carjacking with the intent of series injury or death, coercing a child to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity, and any felony crime that with more than a one-year sentence that includes using or threatening to use force against a person or property, or that “involved a substantial risk” that force would have been used.

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A spokeswoman for Cotton said they would get straight up or down votes at a simple majority threshold, meaning Republicans will have to vote against the amendments if they're going to be defeated.

Senators estimate that they have roughly 70 votes for the legislation, meaning some supporters could potentially be allowed to vote for a Kennedy-Cotton proposal without them successfully being added to the bill. House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.) has pledged that he will take up the bill this year if it can pass the Senate.

The legislation combines a House-passed prison reform bill with a handful of changes to sentencing laws. Supporters rolled out a new version this week aimed at mollifying and winning over Republican senators, who had been wary of supporting a bill that could potentially be used against them in future election cycles.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThreat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Senate Democrats request watchdog, Red Cross probe DHS detention facilities Iraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran MORE (D-Ill.), who helped craft the bill alongside Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Bipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package MORE (R-Iowa), said they had tried “to be as careful as possible” as they’ve written the legislation.

Durbin acknowledged that Cotton was trying to use his amendments to peel off support from their coalition, but predicted they would defeat him either by voting it down or offering a competing side-by-side proposals.

“Oh definitely. That is clearly what he’s trying to do,” Durbin said. “I think he’ll be surprised to find that many of his complaints have already been addressed in the bill.”