Congress on Wednesday edged closer to a rare bipartisan achievement during a hotly contested election year after a House panel voted overwhelmingly to send a prison reform plan to the floor – despite persistent internal GOP tensions in the Senate over the White House-backed bill.
The prison legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee. It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago amid waning support. But the bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked ongoing disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Donald Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has allied with Democratic supporters of a broader criminal justice package that includes both sentencing and prison reform provisions. GOP leaders in both chambers want to instead move the narrower prison bill, which would authorize training for prisoners that’s aimed at reducing recidivism rates.
As the House panel moved to okay the bill, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) – a previous backer of the broader criminal justice overhaul who has narrowed his sights to prison reform – said he hoped to negotiate with Grassley on a path forward.
“Obviously, as chairman of the committee, he has a lot of influence. But not even the chairman, I think, can get sentencing reform passed given the divisive nature of the issue,” Cornyn said in an interview.
One possibility, Cornyn added, would be offering Grassley a vote on another top priority “that might be enticing.”
While one option discussed by the prison reform bill’s bipartisan Senate backers is allowing Grassley’s camp a vote on sentencing provisions as an amendment, Cornyn explained, there may be a chance to give the Iowan floor time for “other issues” that “maybe he’s worried there won’t be enough floor time to get a vote on.”
Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, his lead Democratic partner on the Senate criminal justice package, said Wednesday that they were “encouraged” by the House’s progress but giving no ground on their position.
“For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms,” Grassley and Durbin said in a statement.
Lobbying on the House prison bill also has become contentious in recent weeks, pitting one of the legislation’s lead cosponsors, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), against the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, fellow New York Rep. Jerry Nadler.
Jeffries has worked for months with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on the bill, omitting the sentencing provisions that are a nonstarter with the White House in part because of longstanding opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Nadler took part in a Tuesday meeting with opponents of the legislation and made an impassioned plea to delay consideration of the bill during the markup. Jeffries, however, downplayed the tension after the bill sailed through the judiciary panel. He said everyone involved in the bill supports addressing sentencing laws; the disagreement is over when that should happen.
“Mass incarceration has been with us for almost 40 years. It’s going to take more than one singular legislative magic wand to eradicate it,” Jeffries said in an interview.
“We all agree that sentencing reform should be a part of any broad criminal justice reform effort that takes place. The First Step Act represents the beginning of the end of overcriminalization in America.”
A House floor vote on the bill is possible before the Memorial Day recess, according to multiple sources. But the proposal still faces formidable foes, from powerful civil rights groups like the ACLU and key senators such as Grassley and Durbin. Dozens of advocacy groups, including the NAACP, sent another letter opposing the prison bill to House members on Tuesday.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another supporter of the broader criminal justice package, reiterated in a Tuesday interview that “I want to see sentencing reform and prison reform move together, and I worry that this bill doesn’t” make that happen.
Booker met Monday night to discuss strategy on the bill with Durbin, Jeffries, Nadler, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). But supporters of the broader and narrower approaches to criminal justice left entrenched in their positions, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.
Getting the bill to Trump’s desk would be a major coup for a group of unlikely allies that has brought together pols on opposite ends of the spectrum like Jeffries and Collins, Trump’s son-in-law turned adviser Kushner, progressive groups including #cut50, and the conservative Koch brothers.
“To us a deal is there to be done, and we’re urging a deal,” Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and a prominent conservative organizer, said in a recent interview. The group is hoping to see Grassley “show a little flexibility” on the issue, he added.
The bill, if successful, would likely be the last major bipartisan effort to clear Congress before the election. And it would be a major victory for Kushner, who has failed to score any significant wins in the White House, despite a disparate policy portfolio that has included everything from bringing peace to the Middle East to tackling the nation’s opioid crisis.
“The key for this is a realization that perfect doesn’t exist on the Hill,” Collins said in an interview. “Although we want to have done some more, this is a very valid first step.”
The White House "look[s] forward to a vote in the full House" on the legislation, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said by email.
The bill would 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.
In a major win for progressives, the bill also includes a technical tweak to current law that would increase “good time” credit for prisoners from 47 days to 54 days per year. The change, which would be applied retroactively, would lead to the immediate release of 4,000 prisoners, according to the bill’s supporters.
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