Conservatives scramble to change criminal justice bill

Conservatives are launching an eleventh-hour effort to make changes to a White House-backed criminal justice reform bill.

The Senate is expected to take a final vote on the measure Tuesday night — but first they will have to beat back proposed changes that bill supporters are characterizing as “poison pills” meant to sink the comprehensive legislation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Senators are scrambling to defang the battle, which is threatening to put a spotlight on GOP infighting, and allow Republicans to bypass forcing their members to take tough votes. Supporters of the legislation say they are in talks to see if they can get an agreement to work in some amendments from GOP senators that are considered noncontroversial.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (D-Ill.) said there was broad, “general” talk “about a manager’s amendment” to work in some of the proposed changes, but no agreement had been reached.

“During the period of time where people were reading it for 24 hours, we found two or three things we wanted to change,” Durbin said. “We do have some provisions that I think are acceptable all around that we would like to add to the bill either by UC [unanimous consent] or manager’s amendment.”

He pointed to amendments from GOP Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Overnight Defense: Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy | Trump, Macron downplay rift on Iran | Trump mourns West Point cadet's death in accident | Pentagon closes review of deadly Niger ambush MORE (Okla.), related to faith-based activities, and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles Ocasio-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 MORE (Texas), who is looking to add additional crimes that would exclude an individual from earning credits that reduce a sentence. Both provisions would need unanimous consent to be included in the final bill.

The Senate’s criminal justice bill takes a House-passed prison reform measure and folds in a handful of alterations to sentencing laws and mandatory minimums for some drug-related felonies. It also would make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.

In a major boost to supporters, who have been stuck in legislative limbo for years, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE threw his support behind the bill in November, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund MORE (R-Ky.) agreed to give the legislation a floor vote after a furious lobbying campaign from the White House, advocates and members of his own caucus.

But the decision to move forward with the legislation has done little to quell opposition from the bill’s most ardent Republican opponents. McConnell acknowledged on Tuesday that there is an appetite among his caucus to make further changes to the legislation.

ADVERTISEMENT

“With respect to the substance of the legislation, a number of members continue to have outstanding concerns that the bill currently leaves unaddressed,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “Members will have the opportunity to debate and vote on the pending germane amendments before we vote on final passage.”

GOP Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' MORE (Colo.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (Pa.) tried to offer amendments on Tuesday and make them available before a vote, but both efforts were blocked. Gardner attempted to attach a marijuana measure to the overall bill but was blocked by Grassley. Toomey, meanwhile, was blocked by Durbin when he tried to bring up his amendment on the Crime Victims Fund.

Republican senators who say they are still weighing the bill warn that they are hearing concerns from law enforcement groups, and that those reservations are impacting their thinking.

“I’ve been glad to see there have been some changes made along the way, changes that address some of the serious concerns that I and others have raised,” said Toomey, who said he hasn’t decided whether he will support the bill. “I do think there is still room for more improvement.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE (R-Fla.) said in a statement that he has “heard significant concerns from local law enforcement, federal prosecutors and constituents” and that if those issues aren’t addressed through the amendment process, “I will vote no on this bill when it comes before the Senate for final passage.”

The biggest remaining hurdle is how to navigate around votes on three amendments from Sens. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' GOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE (R-Ark.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who are both fiercely opposed to the legislation. Because McConnell teed up the amendments late last week, the Senate will have to vote on them before they can get to a final vote on the criminal justice bill.

The Cotton-Kennedy amendments would include requiring that victims or families of victims be notified when a criminal is released. Another change would be to make publicly available rearrest data for those released, 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 approximately 10 offenses to a list that excludes someone from being eligible for the bill’s earned-time credits that are designed to shorten sentences.

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 (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said there are discussions with Cotton about trying to get an agreement that would allow the parts of his amendments that receive bipartisan support to be included in the final bill, known as the First Step Act.

“There’s still ongoing discussions to talk with Sen. Cotton to see if there’s areas we can agree to,” Cornyn said. “There’s some parts of his amendments that people — that I think do represent consensus, that we might be able to agree to.”

He added that talks were “in flux” but heading in the “right direction” after the Senate advanced the bill over a procedural hurdle on Monday night during an 82-12 vote.

Cotton declined to comment when asked about his amendments and any talks. But he tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, urging colleagues to support his proposed changes.

“The First Step Act provides hundreds of new rights and privileges to federal prisoners. More phone time, reduced sentences, ‘compassionate release,’ and early release credits. There is not a single benefit in the bill for the victims of these criminals,” Cotton added in a separate tweet.

Kennedy, sounding equally defiant, said he was responsible for the amendments related to victim notification and planned to go to the Senate floor with them.

“I’m going with my half rain or shine,” Kennedy said. “My half says before you let a rapist go, you’ve got to tell the woman that he raped—just a thought.”

Without a deal on potential changes to the Kennedy-Cotton amendments, senators, including a handful of Republicans, will need to join with every Democratic senator to vote them down. A simple majority is needed to include an amendment, and Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the chamber.

Durbin warned that if the changes as currently drafted are included in the criminal justice legislation it will kill Democratic support for the measure.

“Sen. Grassley is opposed to all three of them and is going to say so publicly,” Durbin said, referring to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One 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 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 MORE (R-Iowa). “I think others will join him.”

But Kennedy — who noted he wouldn’t support the criminal justice bill even if his changes are added — questioned how any senators could be against his proposed changes.

"I'm not going to predict that my amendment will get 51 votes, but I think it will get a fair amount of votes," Kennedy said. "I mean, how can anybody oppose telling a woman who's been raped that her rapist is going to get out of prison early?"