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 TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers 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 - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote McConnell: 'Time to move on' from Trump impeachment talk 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 CornynMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed 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 BluntGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying 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 CottonOvernight Defense: Senators show skepticism over Space Force | Navy drops charges against officers in deadly collision | Trump taps next Navy chief Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal GOP senators introduce bill to reduce legal immigration  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 RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday 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 DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.), who helped craft the bill alongside Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy 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.”