Washington’s assumption that bipartisan achievement is impossible in an election year could soon be disproved — if Republican leaders can overcome an unlikely blockade in the Senate.
At issue is a long-simmering battle over modernizing the criminal justice system that has pit bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate against each other.
On one side are the White House, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), most House Republicans and a group of House Democrats who are eager to reform the nation’s crowded prisons. But serious pushback is coming from the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), as well as other House and Senate Democrats and powerful progressive activists who don’t want to see prison reform move without overhauling what they see as outmoded federal sentencing rules.
A narrow prison reform bill, which was crafted with the help of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, could pass the House as soon as this month. But even a significant bipartisan tally in the House is unlikely to make Grassley and his Democratic allies budge.
In an interview Thursday, Grassley offered a polite stiff-arm to a suggestion from Cornyn that he could somehow be coaxed into supporting the measure on the Senate floor.
“I think at this point, I want to continue to not discuss things with Sen. Cornyn but to continue to build bipartisan support for” the broader criminal justice package he’s spent years negotiating, Grassley said. “And we have every indication we’re going to be able to do that.”
Grassley also appealed directly to Trump, touting a recent poll that showed high approval ratings for sentencing reform. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the president to have a bipartisan victory,” Grassley added. “And to sign it. And that’s exactly what he needs for the midterm elections.”
Indeed, as Republicans face a daunting midterm campaign to hold on to Congress, GOP leaders are eager to overcome Grassley’s opposition or devise a compromise that can get them a bipartisan victory to tout on the trail.
Kushner continues to play an active role in the issue, scheduling a Friday tour of a Dallas prison alongside Cornyn. Although flight delays forced Kushner to skip that appearance, according to the White House, he called into a later meeting Cornyn held with Texas officials and advocates.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has linked arms with Grassley as chief negotiators of the broader criminal justice package, said in a Thursday interview that nothing short of a floor vote on their legislation might be enough to convince its backers to agree to taking up the prison-only bill.
Durbin recalled that he last spoke with Kushner two weeks ago on the issue: “I told him what to do, and that’s call [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and to bring to the floor the bill that passed overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support, in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s the answer.”
Supporters of the broader bill argue that criminal justice reform can't be truly effective without addressing the front end of a system that has stuffed prisons to the brim.
McConnell, however, is aligned with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in standing firm against any legislation that includes sentencing reductions. The broader criminal justice bill Grassley has steered through his committee with majority-GOP support would ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders, while creating new mandatory minimums for other offenses, including opioid trafficking.
Sessions spent his career trying to derail any effort at reducing sentences and now, as the nation’s top cop with Trump’s ear, the former Alabama senator is in his most powerful perch yet.
Grassley appeared to shrug off Sessions’ influence. “We don’t have to worry about Senator Sessions,” he told reporters. “You don’t have to know why.”
Over in the House, supporters of the narrower prison reform bill are working to build support after the proposal sailed through the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead cosponsors of the bill, and the outside groups backing the measure are expected to engage in a furious lobbying campaign over the next week in an attempt to build a strong — and more importantly, bipartisan — coalition of support.
Jeffries and Collins said they hope the bill will come up for a floor vote in two weeks, just before lawmakers jet off for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.
The effort to gin up House Republican votes won’t be as hard. In addition to Kushner, the legislation has a broad range of conservative backing from the Koch brothers to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
And all but one Republican on the Judiciary panel voted for the bill this week, including several conservatives and members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. While not absolute, the varied membership of the Judiciary Committee often provides a good estimate for the broader Republican conference.
“When you actually work on a bill — Hakeem and I, our offices, the administration worked together on something — you can come up with an outcome in this city that a lot of times people don’t expect,” Collins said of the panel’s lopsided vote in favor of the bill.
“The key for this became the realization that perfect doesn’t exist on the Hill,” he added.
Now Collins and Jeffries hope a strong, bipartisan vote in the House could help nudge influential opponents of the narrower approach, from Grassley and Durbin to potential Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), to be more open to their approach.
But first Jeffries must round up the votes on his side. The New York Democrat has been pitching his plan to colleagues for months and plans to hold as many one-on-one meetings with members as he can in the coming days.
Key groups to watch include the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been leading the effort on criminal justice reform, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group often in close step with many of the outside activists who oppose the prison reform bill.
Jeffries scored a major win this week when all but one CBC member on the Judiciary panel, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.), backed the bill in committee. He and other supporters hope that the bill’s critics can be persuaded by some key wins on Democratic priorities already included in the proposal, including a “good time” fix that allows prisoners to earn up to 54 days of credit per year, up from the current 47 days.
The change is retroactive and if enacted into law would allow for the immediate release of 4,000 prisoners. Democrats who back the bill are selling the addition as a major win — and a back-end sentencing reform — while Republicans say the change is just a language tweak to the underlying law.
The legislation would also authorize $50 million annually for five years for educational and vocational programs for prisoners with the goal of equipping inmates for life after incarceration and reducing repeat offenses.
Still, the prison-only bill’s Democratic supporters are squaring off against a powerful coalition of outside opponents they normally find on their side including the ACLU and the NAACP. Even FreedomWorks, an influential conservative group that hailed the advancement of the prison bill, reminded lawmakers not to leave Grassley-backed sentencing changes on the sideline forever.
"Sooner or later, Congress will have to revisit this issue to ensure that we are reforming sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders and reserving limited prison space for violent offenders," FreedomWorks vice president of legislative affairs Jason Pye said in a statement.