Last week Donald Trump signaled that after more than two years of quiet and not-so-quiet obstruction of the most modest, bipartisan legislation relaxing War on Drugs prison and sentencing policies, he’d back legislation his own son-in-law Jared Kushner helped craft and broker between Republican and Senate lawmakers.
The bill (dubbed the First Step Act) combined a set of “back-end” policies aimed at encouraging post-incarceration opportunities for former federal prisoners, which passed the House earlier this year with a few “front-end” sentencing-reform provisions taken from a more ambitious Senate bill that Mitch McConnell had repeatedly blocked as “too divisive.” Despite Kushner’s advocacy and long-standing conservative support (ranging from semi-libertarian Republicans like Mike Lee and Rand Paul to conservative religious figures to the Koch brothers), Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric in 2016, and his appointment of a bitter opponent of criminal-justice reform, Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, had blocked any legislation from making it to the Senate floor.
The compromise Kushner put together did nothing to change the opposition of hard-core incarceration fans led by Senator Tom Cotton. But when Trump himself announced support, it was assumed McConnell would make sure a Senate vote happened during the lame-duck session, before the composition and leadership of the House changes, unraveling the earlier deals.
Senator Mitch McConnell told President Trump in a private meeting on Thursday that there is not likely to be enough time to bring a bipartisan criminal justice bill up for a vote this year, regardless of the support it has in the Senate and the White House, according to people familiar with the meeting.
The real issue for McConnell doesn’t seem to be floor time, but the unwillingness to roll over conservative opponents:
At the Senate Republicans’ weekly caucus luncheon at the Capitol, Mr. McConnell acknowledged that the changes had influential supporters who had worked hard on the issue, but also invited two of its chief critics, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, to deliver remarks, two Republican congressional officials said.
Mr. Cotton, who has been perhaps the loudest critic of the bill’s sentencing changes in the Senate, urged colleagues to slow down the process, saying that the bill’s impact and implications were too expansive to push through without hearings, according to another official familiar with his remarks.
Cotton’s prescription, of course, would mean the compromise bill would die with the expiration of the current Congress, leading to a whole new set of negotiations, including the new Democratic managers of the House. For Cotton, the problem isn’t the need for hearings; it’s positioning the traditional party favoring a lock-em-all-up attitude toward those people with what the grim Arkansan calls a “jailbreak.”
Intraparty tensions over the latest initiative broke out yesterday in a very long Twitter debate between Senators Lee and Cotton, with the latter demanding hearings to deal with what he claimed was permissive treatment of violent drug dealers and the former suggesting Cotton deal with his issues on the floor with amendments. Meanwhile, outgoing Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, a long-standing supporter of the original sentencing-reform bill that went farther than Kushner’s compromise, has reportedly gone to the mats with McConnell:
I have been there for you, Mr. Grassley told Mr. McConnell, the man standing in the way of a quick vote on the measure. And I would hope this is something that you would help me make happen, he said, according to three people familiar with the call who were not authorized to publicly discuss the conversation.
The direct lobbying by Mr. Grassley was just part of a pressure campaign aimed squarely at Mr. McConnell this week as an unusual coalition of senators, conservative advocacy groups and White House officials press to change the nation’s sentencing and prison laws. With President Trump supportive of the effort and Speaker Paul D. Ryan pledging to move it through the House, they increasingly view the Senate majority leader as the lone obstacle to unwinding some of the federal tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
The simple truth is that a blunt phone call from Donald Trump to McConnell insisting on a vote for the bill — and maybe additional calls to Cotton and Kennedy and other opponents, asking them to back off — would almost certainly do the trick. You have to figure that McConnell is protecting POTUS from something happening that he’s half-hearted about to begin with — as his reluctance to do anything about this legislation for the first two years of his presidency suggests.
Meanwhile, supporters of criminal-justice measures that are a lot more serious than this “First Step” legislation, including the Democrats who are about to take over the House, are probably feeling ambivalent about the enactment of a compromise that could kill momentum toward real reform.
At this point, it’s all in Trump’s hands, unless he chooses to pretend it’s in McConnell’s.