Gallego won't seek Ariz. Senate seat, clearing Dem path for Kelly
Senate passes criminal justice overhaul, handing Trump a win
The Senate passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill on Tuesday night, handing a significant victory to President Trump and senators who lobbied to advance the legislation before the end of the year.
Senators voted 87-12 on the legislation, which merges a House-passed prison reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism with a handful of changes to sentencing laws and mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Its passage is also a win for Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, who took on criminal justice reform as one of his primary policy goals and who has lobbied individual senators to back the bill for months.
Conservative lawmakers had scrambled to make changes to the White House-backed bill ahead of the vote Tuesday night. Twelve Republican senators ended up voting against the measure despite Trump's support.
The bill still needs to clear the House, which starts back in session on Wednesday, before it can go to Trump's desk for a signature. Advocates believe it will get a vote in the lower chamber as soon as Thursday as lawmakers aim to wrap up their work this week before leaving town for the holiday recess.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) indicated after the Senate vote that the House would take it up before the end of the year.
"Criminal justice reform is about giving more Americans a chance at redemption. The House looks forward to sending it to the president to become law," he said in a tweet.
Trump quickly touted passage of the legislation in the Senate on Tuesday night, tweeting that the bill "will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it."
Senate passage of the criminal justice bill is a major victory for advocates following years of legislative limbo for such bills amid vocal opposition from conservatives and an indifferent reception from GOP leadership. Republicans appeared poised as recently as this month to punt the bill to 2019 amid deep divisions in the GOP caucus and a tight floor schedule.
Supporters got a major break in November when Trump endorsed the bill, calling it "tough on crime" and telling lawmakers he was "waiting with a pen" to sign the legislation. He doubled down earlier this month on urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the bill for a vote before the end of the year, saying in a tweet, "Go for it Mitch!"
Those backing the bill touted the president's support for the legislation, pledging that criminal justice reform would give the White House a major bipartisan win before Republicans lose their unified government starting in January.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said even Trump - "who has a reputation for being tough on crime" - supported the bill because he realized there was "unfairness" within the judicial system and that Republicans could be both "tough on crime" but also "fair on crime."
"This is an opportunity for a Republican majority in the United States Senate to show that this Republican president can do something that even President Obama couldn't get done," Grassley said Tuesday, adding that passage of the bill is a "big, bipartisan legislative accomplishment" for the president.
Senators have been negotiating on a potential criminal justice deal for months, working closely with Kushner.
For a group of conservative senators, Trump's backing wasn't enough to quell their opposition to the bill. In the end, 12 GOP senators voted against the bill: John Barrasso (Wyo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Kennedy (La.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jim Risch (Idaho), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).
Senators on Tuesday also voted down several floated changes from Cotton and Kennedy, who were the bill's biggest opponents in the Senate.
Cotton argued that his amendments were in line with the intent of the bill and would "fix some of the worst part of the bill." But, he added, he still believed the legislation is "deeply unwise" and would result in the "early release from prison thousands of serious, repeat and potentially violent felons over the next few months."
"There are very modest amendments. The are consistent with the rhetoric of the bill's sponsors. I know that some of the sponsors have said this is a poison pill. I frankly don't see why. It is consistent with their own rhetoric," Cotton said.
Kennedy separately told reporters that he wouldn't support the bill even if his amendments were added, saying, "I just think the approach is wrong."
The Cotton-Kennedy amendments would including requiring that the victims or families of victims are notified when an individual is released. Another change would be to make publicly available the 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, which could be used to shorten sentences.
But each of their amendments was rejected with more than a dozen GOP senators joining with Democrats to block them from getting added to the bill, warning that their inclusion would threaten support for the legislation and likely sink its chances of passing the Senate.
No Democrats voted for Cotton and Kennedy's proposed changes on Tuesday night and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, warned the caucus was "overwhelmingly opposed" to them.
The criminal justice fight put a spotlight on the sort of GOP divisions leadership generally tries to avoid. And McConnell, who ended up voting for the bill, acknowledged earlier Tuesday that some members of his caucus continued to have "outstanding concerns that the bill currently leaves unaddressed."
Grassley tried to bring up an amendment that included changes for faith-based groups, would add additional crimes that exclude an individual from earning credits that reduce a sentence, extend an independent review committee tasked with overseeing implementation of the bill from two to five years and require annual supports.
The amendment would have worked in requested changes from GOP Sens. James Lankford (Okla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) that are considered noncontroversial by both sides, but Kennedy objected because of the extension of the review committee.
"If you believe our sentencing laws are unjust then I am prepared to stay here night and day through Christmas and let's debate them and fix them," he said. "But that's not what this is doing. What this is doing is giving away all our authority as United States senators to nameless bureaucrats."
Instead they approved an amendment advocated by Lankford that only included the changes for faith-based groups and the additional exclusions on what criminals are eligible for the earned-time credits, requested by Cruz.
Drafters of the legislation said they thought they had included the changes in a revised bill they rolled out last week, but acknowledged after filing it that the provisions for Lankford and Cruz were left out and instead would have to be added on the floor.
The Senate's passage of the criminal justice bill is years in the making. Grassley and Durbin led a bipartisan group of senators who introduced a broader sentencing and prison reform bill in 2015, only to see the legislation go nowhere despite believing they had 60 votes.
Supporters blamed the standstill on leadership not wanting to highlight GOP divisions heading into the 2016 election, when they were defending two dozen Senate seats.
They reintroduced the bill in 2017 but acknowledged they had an uphill climb with Jeff Sessions, who had been a vocal Senate opponent to the bill, as attorney general and Trump in the White House. And they were at a standstill with the House for months, which passed a prison reform only bill earlier this year.
Durbin and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have also been furiously working to build Democratic support for the bill amid public concerns that Trump's endorsement of the bill could spark backlash from several Democrats eyeing White House bids in 2020.
No Democrats voted against the bill on Tuesday night.
"We've worked long and hard on this. We've had policy groups, prosecutors, civil liberties groups. All have carefully reviewed this. No one is getting what they wanted completely. This is a product of compromise. But that's how you pass a bill in the United States Senate," Durbin said.
Updated: 9:10 p.m.