It was supposed to be the rare bipartisan bright spot in the Senate, but a crowded legislative calendar and the looming election year are endangering the last best hope for criminal justice reform while President Obama is still in office.
With roughly three weeks left until the holidays, the Senate is prioritizing passing a tax extenders bill, a reconciliation package to defund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, a transportation bill, and legislation to fund the government. That means time has run out for criminal justice reform in this calendar year.
“No chance it can be done between now and Christmas,” Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday evening as he darted off the Senate floor clutching his list of the Republican senators he still intended to convince to sign onto his bill, his handwritten notes scrawled underneath each of their names.
Advocates and outside observers have long anticipated that the best chance for passage of criminal justice reform would be before the practical realities of electoral politics intruded in 2016. With the remainder of the year taken up by other matters, reformers will have to wait until the Senate gavels back in in the new year, in the midst of presidential primary season.
The prospects of pushing forward with the Senate bill just as the Republican presidential primary in particular is in full swing — with the expected tough-on-crime appeals to the conservative base — is daunting. Primary season is hardly the time for the Republicans back in Washington to be giving up on the well-honed GOP attack lines on crime and pushing forward a progressive new position on incarceration.
Grassley’s strategy all along has been not to rush the criminal justice reform bill. It was Grassley himself who–once a fierce opponent to reductions in mandatory minimums–came to support them through a long and arduous committee negotiation. But Grassley and supporters are now running short on time to get their bill on the floor especially if Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stays on top.
Trump’s attempts to tie illegal immigration and criminality have prompted fellow Republican presidential candidates to follow suite. In a race to out-flank one another, the GOP contenders have backed away from the new wave of conservative thinking on criminal justice reform and reverted to echoing the talking points that were cornerstones of the party in the 1980s and 1990s. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against the criminal justice reform bill in committee in October even as he once billed himself as a pro-reform Republican. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)–once was hailed as a leader on the issue– didn’t even participate in the negotiations, a sign of just how much of a risk it is to take on criminal justice reform in the throes of an election cycle.
While momentum had been building for the Senate’s criminal justice reform bill, there are still deep divisions in the Republican Party to contend with. The tug of war is between traditional tough-on-crime Republicans who believe reductions in sentences would lead to a spike in crime and a new generation of conservatives who see an economic argument for reducing mandatory minimums and slashing the costs associated with incarceration.
Grassley and other sponsors like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are working to convince senators like Cory Gardner (R-CO), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV) and Steve Daines (R-MT) to sign on, but there are some outspoken opponents who may prove to be immovable.
“I think the bill needs more work. I think it needs to be connected with the reality of criminal justice and crime in America,” said Jeff Sessions (R-AL) “I would not favor bringing it up and just zipping it through. A number of members in our conference, I think share those concerns.”
Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) replied “no comment” when TPM asked him about his position. Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he was concerned the bill would “let out a lot of people who don’t deserve to be let out [of prison.]”
While Democratic sponsors of the bill are publicly optimistic that the legislation can get a vote on the floor even in an election year, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) admits the lack of GOP unity does put the legislation in some jeopardy. Republican leadership will want to ensure they have buy in from most of their conference if they are going to risk bringing the bill up in an election year and giving President Barack Obama a domestic legislative victory.
“I think this is an issue that needs to be wrangled out on the Republican side so the Republicans on the bill need their own leadership to get it some votes,” Whitehouse says. “It’s not unanimous so the Jeff Sessions and people like that would be out of the floor pushing back the same way they did on the committee.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) says he’s familiar with the process of selling criminal justice reform to a skeptical audience. Tillis was speaker of the North Carolina House when the legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which made back-end reforms to reduce recidivism.
“I know that a lot of people get concerned with it,” Tillis said. “It’s not really a soft on crime bill. It is the typical arguments that get used for these sorts of things, but I think the more that we educate people, the broader base of support we will get for it.”
Tillis recognizes, however, that the problem is that on the campaign trail, candidates don’t have time to explain complicated or new policy proposals.
“If candidates on either side of the aisle exploits it for what it is not, yeah it could slow things down,” Tillis said.” You only get to operate in 15 and 30 second soundbites, and you cannot explain the merits of this bill in that time frame so yeah going on into the early primaries, it could be difficult and they have to stake themselves out.”
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