The Washington Post Sunday

No time for prison sentencing bill? Supporters say the time is now.

- @PKCapitol PAUL KANE

Republican supporters of legislatio­n overhaulin­g prison sentencing rules have a message for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): It’s now or, most likely, never.

McConnell, without ever taking a public position on the bill, has told President Trump and his colleagues that there simply is not enough time to take up the complex issue. Not when lawmakers have to clear a yearend bill funding a large chunk of the federal government, pass a new farm bill and try to confirm more executive and judicial branch nominees.

But supporters of the First Step Act — which reduces some mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes and tries to reduce the risk of recidivism — view any delay as the near-certain death of the bill.

These Republican­s warn the wait-till-next-year attitude would break apart their narrowly threaded bipartisan coalition. Democrats will take over the House on Jan. 3 and will understand­ably demand new concession­s that would likely cause Republican­s to back away from the deal.

“I think the terrain changes drasticall­y next year, so you have to find a way to get it done this year,” said Sen. Tim Scott (RS.C.), a prominent supporter of the bill. “I think the Democrats will want to add things on that will probably be poisoning pills to Republican­s.”

Democrats have said the best bet is to cut the deal now, especially since it is so rare that large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate support something so significan­t — along with Trump.

“You seize the moment. Seize the moment,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the lead Democratic negotiator, said Tuesday at a Washington Post Live event on criminal justice laws.

The biggest dispute right now is basic math.

McConnell said that a majority of his Senate GOP colleagues either oppose the legislatio­n or have not taken a position. He called it “extremely divisive” for Senate Republican­s.

“I have got this much time,” he said Monday at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington, holding his hands a couple of inches apart to illustrate the narrow window.

He cited several days of memorial events after the death of former president George H.W. Bush for eating up more time. “The question is,” McConnell said, “can you shoehorn something that’s extremely controvers­ial into the remaining time?”

But some Republican­s said McConnell is lowballing support for the legislatio­n and creating his own unofficial rule that the bill needs a supermajor­ity of GOP support.

Scott said that supporters need at least 30 of the 51 Republican­s to force McConnell’s hand. “At some point we’ ll hit the tipping point where we believe the leader will be willing to put it on the calendar,” he said.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who has worked with Durbin for years on the bill, said he already has a majority of Republican­s ready to vote yes. “I have personally counted 26 Republican­s, 26 Republican­s who have said, ‘I will vote for this bill,’ if you put it on the floor right now,” he said at the Post Live event.

And Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the departing chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a supporter of the bill, is upset his heavy lift on judicial nomination­s is not being rewarded with a floor vote on the criminal justice proposal. Grassley wants passage of his highest priority, but McConnell still prioritize­s the confirmati­on of even more judges.

“I’ve delivered pretty well, more judges than any previous president has gotten in their first two years. Two new Supreme Court justices. We’ve worked together on that so maybe I should have some considerat­ion for that,” Grassley told The Post’s Robert Costa.

Grassley thinks he could almost get 30 GOP votes for the bill. Coupled with an estimated 45 or more Democratic votes, the legislatio­n sits on the cusp of almost 80 votes.

All this comes as McConnell, 76, pivots toward a 2020 reelection campaign in which, given the sad state of the Kentucky Democratic Party, his most difficult challenge could be a GOP primary challenge from the right.

And the most strident conservati­ves are split on the issue. On Friday Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) ended his wavering and came out in support of his good friend Lee. Sen. Tom Cotton (RArk.) has led the public opposition, right down to engaging in personal fights with Lee on social media.

Yes, many evangelica­l Christian leaders have locked arms with the conservati­ve Koch brothers and Democratic 2020 presidenti­al contenders such as Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), but no one is certain where the hardcore voters in Republican primaries will land on this issue.

Trump is publicly supportive, with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the most prominent West Wing voice backing the plan. Kushner flew with Trump on Friday to a Missouri rally ostensibly to stump for the First Step Act, and en route back to Washington, the president again tweeted his support for the plan.

But there’s also the lingering feeling that Trump has not put his full weight into the issue. At Friday’s rally, he devoted much more time to his demands for a border wall than he did to the criminal justice overhaul.

Faced with that uncertaint­y, McConnell appears to have decided to just cite procedural concerns about a lack of time.

“This is a one-week to 10-day bill and I’ve got two weeks,” McConnell said at the Wall Street Journal event, suggesting “it would pass next year” if they wait.

In fact, Grassley’s committee approved the legislatio­n in February, and there has been ample time to put the legislatio­n on the floor.

The delay infuriates Grassley. He wants the Senate to stop processing presidenti­al nomination­s, which can resume next month without any impact from Democrats taking over the House.

Push this legislatio­n across the finish line now, Grassley said, or else it may never happen.

“If this bill doesn’t get done now and we work with the Democrat House next year, there’s going to be a bill that fewer Republican­s will support, fewer chances of getting it done,” Grassley said. “So we have a once-in-a-generation opportunit­y to accomplish something.”

 ?? MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t taken a public position on the First Step Act, which overhauls prison sentencing rules, but says that the end-of-the-year agenda is too packed for it.
MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t taken a public position on the First Step Act, which overhauls prison sentencing rules, but says that the end-of-the-year agenda is too packed for it.

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