McConnell Agrees to Vote on Prisons-Sentencing Bill

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Photo by C.E. Kent. via Flickr

In a breakthrough for criminal justice reform advocates, the Senate will vote on a federal sentencing and prison reform bill that has proved deeply controversial within the Senate Republican ranks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Tuesday.

McConnell said in a floor speech the Senate will take up the legislation, written principally by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) and other Democratic and Republican senators, the Washington Post reports.

The House passed the First Step Act earlier this year, but it has been pending in the Senate for several months as senators have negotiated primarily on sections involving reducing the possibility of prison time for several thousand inmates convicted of drug offenses.

The House version of the bill included only reforms in the federal prison system, but a bipartisan group of senators has insisted on adding sentencing reform provisions. President Trump recently announced his support for the measure.

Backers and advocates have been publicly and privately lobbying McConnell for months to bring the bill to the floor, arguing that they have at least 70 votes in support of the legislation.

McConnell’s decision is a dramatic turnaround from last week, when he warned that he did not have time to move the criminal justice bill this year, which he said could take up to 10 days. “It’s extremely divisive inside the Senate Republican Conference, in fact there are more members in my conference that are either against it or undecided than or for it,” McConnell said at a Wall Street event. “This is a one-week to 10-day bill and I’ve got two weeks.”

McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) estimated last week that a majority of Republicans were undecided or opposed to the bill, but since then several Republican senators, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and David Perdue (R-GA) have endorsed it.

Durbin and Grassley have been circulating a draft that includes changes to win more GOP support. The new version of the bill is expected to released as soon as Tuesday, the Hill reports.

The changes are expected to include expanding the list of crimes that exclude an inmate from bill’s “earned time” credits, which cut time off a prison sentence. Senators are also discussing eliminating a “safety valve” portion of the bill that gives judges some discretion in going around mandatory minimums.

McConnell’s decision comes days after Trump doubled down on publicly urging the GOP leader to bring up the bill for a vote.

“Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform. It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support. It will also help a lot of people, save taxpayer dollars, and keep our communities safe. Go for it Mitch!” Trump said in a tweet on Friday.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is strongly opposed to the legislation, which he calls the “jailbreak bill.”

“So when cornered by a zealous bill sponsor, most senators will hem & haw, trim, [and] hedge. They will say something abstract like, ‘I agree, we need to do something,’ etc etc. But then they tell the whip they don’t want to touch the bill with a 10-foot pole,” Cotton said in a tweet about internal GOP dynamics.

If the Senate passes the legislation, it will still need to be approved by the House by the end of the year before it can go to Trump’s desk. AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), said the House “will be ready to act.”

McConnell warned on Tuesday that because of the decision to add the measure to the Senate agenda, “members should now be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s.” He urged senators to “work together or prepare for a very, very long month.”

Congress also must complete work on appropriations bills this month or face a partial government shutdown.

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