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Advocates ramp up pressure on criminal justice measure
A coalition of advocacy groups is ramping up pressure on lawmakers to include criminal justice legislation in a must-pass defense bill.
The push comes as staffers and lawmakers are expected to informally start merging the House and Senate National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) during the August recess.
The House-passed NDAA includes the Fair Chance Act, which prohibits the federal government and federal contractors from asking about a job applicant's criminal history before making a conditional offer of employment. The Senate's defense bill doesn't include the legislation.
Supporters are rolling out a new poll, obtained exclusively by The Hill ahead of its release, showing most Americans support the ideas behind the Fair Chance Act.
The poll - conducted by GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Justice Action Network, a coalition of outside groups supporting the bill - found that 83 percent of voters say they would support a proposal that allows employers to conduct background checks "but not until after applicants have had a chance to share their skills and qualifications."
That percentage, according to the poll, includes 72 percent of GOP voters and 91 percent of Democratic voters. Overall, 15 percent say they would oppose such a proposal, including 24 percent of Republicans and 8 percent of Democrats.
"We've shown overwhelming public support, the administration has shown its support, and now we just need the Senate to include the amendment," said Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network.
She added that she's "really hopeful that the leaders and those negotiating the bill will see both the policy value and the political value."
Thirty-nine percent also said they would be more likely to vote for their member of Congress if they supported the proposal, compared to 8 percent who say they would be less likely. Just over half, 51 percent, indicated it wouldn't make a difference.
The poll surveyed 800 registered voters nationwide from July 13-16 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
The push to include the legislation in the NDAA comes as lawmakers are out of Washington until September. When they return, they'll have a packed floor schedule, including funding the government by Oct. 1 to prevent a second shutdown.
Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, noted that putting the criminal justice measure in the mammoth defense bill prevents it from having to compete with other items on the Senate's agenda. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is likely to prioritize nominations and appropriations when making decisions about the chamber's limited floor time in the fall.
"The House could pass Fair Chance and send it over to the Senate and absent the White House saying 'hey McConnell, please take up this bill,' he's not going to do it," Pye said.
Neither the House nor Senate have named which senators will be on the conference committee that will ultimately sign off on the final version of the defense bill.
In one potential hurdle to the Fair Chance Act, Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) both asked to be recorded as "no" on the measure when it passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this year. They are both members of the Armed Services Committee, making it possible that they end up on the NDAA conference committee.
The criminal justice bill comes after Congress passed long-stalled sentencing and prison reform legislation in late 2018. The bill had wide bipartisan support, but had stalled for years until President Trump threw his support behind it and publicly urged McConnell to give it a vote.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who is sponsoring the Fair Chance Act in the House along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), said he hopes the Fair Chance Act makes it into the NDAA.
"The Fair Chance Act builds off the success of the First Step Act and goes one step further by helping rehabilitated men and women gain meaningful employment nationwide," he said. "This bill has the potential change lives and help communities everywhere by reducing recidivism and bringing hope to families from coast to coast."
- Jonathan Easley contributed