Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) faces pressure to tackle an overhaul of the federal sentencing system, but deep dissension within his own party between pro-reform Republicans and law-and-order types is threatening one of the few items on the congressional agenda with a real chance of becoming law this year, Politico reports. Criminal justice legislation is backed by the two top vote-counters of each party in the Senate and a right-left coalition. It was bolstered by a presidential shout-out in the State of the Union last week. Passing a bill would advance McConnell's favorite narrative — that the Senate is working again. “We don't have a great deal of time to reach a possible compromise,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said today, referring to a new dispute over a white-collar crime provision called “mens rea.”
But loosening some mandatory minimum sentences is a toxic suggestion among a vocal segment of the GOP, criticism that the presidential primary could amplify. Some backers of the bill fret that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who's vaulted into the top tier in the GOP presidential primary, might seize on the issue ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Cruz says the measure could release violent criminals into the streets. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), McConnell's top deputy, has lobbied the majority leader to take up the proposal soon. Backers say the Senate must move on it quickly, perhaps as soon as next month, for the measure to have any hope of reaching President Obama's desk. McConnell demurred in several year-end interviews on whether he will take up the measure, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The Judiciary Committee approved it, 15-5. Senate leadership is well aware of Cruz's resistance to the bill and how the timing of the presidential caucuses in Iowa could influence the debate. Cruz leads some Iowa polls. “I mean, you can't ignore that,” Cornyn said of Cruz's opposition. “So that's going to be part of our conversation.” But we don't have a great deal of time to reach a possible compromise.