Jared Kushner returned to the political spotlight Wednesday, visiting Capitol Hill to rally support for bipartisan prison reform — and rekindling a long-running internal GOP battle.
Kushner met with Republicans and Democrats to build momentum for prison legislation that could advance to the House floor as soon as next week. But he has a problem in the Senate, where members of both parties are pushing a more sweeping criminal justice package and are loath to scale it back despite entreaties from President Donald Trump’s son-in-law-turned-adviser.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is perhaps the most powerful proponent of a broader criminal justice bill that tackles both sentencing and prison reform. Grassley has shown little eagerness to accommodate the Trump administration’s interest in a smaller-scale bill, slamming Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February after Sessions came out against his bipartisan criminal justice bill.
Kushner proposed a strategy to bridge the divide during his meetings in the House, according to two attendees: Lawmakers should treat the prison reform bill as a down payment that would boost the prospects for an overhaul of sentencing rules.
“You get the rock rolling, [then] you can do other things,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said in an interview. “But first you have to get the rock rolling.”
Kushner was given an expansive portfolio early in the Trump administration, from leading Middle East peace talks to overseeing a new Office of American Innovation, but has yet to notch a significant policy win. Passage of a prison reform bill could change his fortunes, but the odds remain long.
Collins and others in the meetings said Kushner came off as sincere in his effort to see legislation enacted this year despite opposition from some fellow Republicans. Kushner noted that the narrow approach already has the support of both the White House and the Justice Department.
“Even in the political atmosphere this year — and there’s a little bit of a political edge here — this is something that can bring us to get something actually done,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to get it off the Hill.”
The legislation has a personal significance for Trump’s son-in-law beyond scoring a much-needed political win. Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, served 14 months in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering in 2005 being before released to a halfway house for the rest of his two-year sentence.
“He has very much of an interest in it [because of] his father,” Collins said, noting he’s been discussing the legislation with Kushner for more than a year. The bill is expected to be considered in the House Judiciary Committee next week and could be on the floor shortly after that.
Kushner also talked about with prison reform Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday, a sit-down that the presidential son-in-law requested, according to a GOP source familiar with the meeting.
In the meantime, Kushner and others supporters of prison reform, including conservative activist Grover Norquist, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and liberal commentator Van Jones, are trying to rally support from both sides of the aisle.
But the nonprofit group Jones leads, Cut50, wants to see the House bill "strengthened" before endorsing it and sees a potential House Judiciary Committee markup next week as "premature," according to national director Jessica Jackson Sloan.
While Collins was bullish about getting the bill to the House floor next week, his Democratic co-author, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, was less optimistic. The New York Democrat said a committee debate on prison reform is “possible” but called the bill a “work in progress” and said negotiators are still exchanging legislative text.
“We still have a long way to go to get it to the point where it could get substantial Democratic support,” Jeffries said. Some outstanding issues include ensuring medium- to high-risk offenders can take part in the training programs, the treatment of female prisoners and the “good time” credits that would allow a prisoner to serve part of a sentence in a halfway house or similar setting.
“If it’s going to move without sentencing reform, it’s got to be meaningful. If it’s not meaningful, what are we doing here?” Jeffries said, noting there is a good chance Democrats may win back the House and have more control over the legislation next year.
Jeffries said he doesn’t doubt Collins’ or Kushner’s dedication but worries about the motives of others, including Sessions. He added that talks have touched on the addition of a concealed carry provision that would allow federal prosecutors and judges to carry weapons, which would be a nonstarter for Democrats. Jeffries wouldn’t say whether Sessions was behind that push.
If the prison-only bill can make its way to the House floor, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a Wednesday interview that he would ask Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take it up on the Senate floor. Cornyn cosponsored a broader criminal justice reform effort in the past but has narrowed his sights to a prison-only approach this year, given the Trump administration's resistance to the more expansive bill.
"I know there's some division of opinion in terms of sentencing reform, but we know that's not something the president and the attorney general support," Cornyn said.
Whether Kushner's attempt to influence the criminal justice debate has any effect on senators supporting Grassley's broader package remains to be seen. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior Judiciary Committee member and backer of the bigger legislation, said Wednesday that he's "not particularly" interested in Kushner's pitch to advance the narrower bill.
"I want to do both. I guess something's better than nothing — I'll keep an open mind — but the criminal justice reform is equally important," Graham said.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Grassley's Democratic partner on the broader criminal justice bill, said in an interview that "we've certainly made that clear to everyone, including Mr. Kushner, that we want to see prison reform as part of real criminal justice reform, which would include" the bipartisan package.
The prison-only bill aims to help people currently incarcerated, devoting new funds to prevention of repeat offenses and helping federal inmates rebuild their lives. But supporters of the broader approach also "want to try to find a way to get some people out of prison who are probably over-sentenced," as Graham put it.
The broader bill that Grassley steered through his committee in February with support from a majority of Republicans would ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenders, while creating harsher new penalties for other criminal offenses, including opioid trafficking.
Liberal and civil rights activists are mounting their own pushback against the House's prison-only bill. More than 60 groups, including the ACLU and the NAACP, warned in a Friday letter to the House Judiciary Committee that any attempt to tackle only so-called "back end" of imprisonment rules without the front end of sentencing reform is "doomed to fail."
But Kushner is genuinely interested in breaking the impasse over criminal justice reform, according to Timothy Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor appointed by ex-President Barack Obama. Heaphy attended Wednesday's Hill meetings as a representative of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Heaphy said in an interview that Kushner has "done a good job of elevating attention to this issue," making clear he is open to more action on sentencing reform after the "first step" of passing prison reform.
Kushner "asked a lot of questions," Heaphy added, and "convinced me that he was personally engaged in this."