GOP eyes rare shot at bipartisan win with prison reform
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.
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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.