WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate will vote this month on a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system that has proved controversial within the Senate Republican ranks.
McConnell, R-Ky., said in a floor speech that the Senate will take up the legislation, written by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and several other Democratic and GOP senators, in December, perhaps as early as the end of this week.
The decision to put the bill -- which eases some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders while implementing initiatives aimed at lowering recidivism rates -- comes "at the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation" secured by several senators, McConnell said.
But the majority leader also warned that because of the decision to add the criminal justice bill to the Senate agenda, "members should now be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year's." On the Senate's to-do list is averting a partial government shutdown and clearing the deck of judicial and executive branch nominations.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has already pledged swift action before members leave Washington for the holidays.
The legislation has the strong support of President Donald Trump and his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Responding to McConnell's announcement, Trump's daughter Ivanka tweeted, "It's official ... the #FIRSTStepAct is headed to the floor for a vote. This historic legislation will reform our prison system and lift millions of Americans!"
McConnell's move to take up the sentencing and prison overhaul comes as a stark turnaround after the past several days, when he had sent private signals that he had no plans to give the legislation a vote.
But several revisions to the initial draft, which was released shortly before Thanksgiving, that had been approved by several law-enforcement groups and demanded by influential GOP senators have slowly won over once-hesitant Republican senators.
"The White House says 80" votes in favor of the bill, Grassley said Tuesday. "I'd say 75."
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and David Perdue, R-Ga., onetime skeptics of the effort, have endorsed the legislation in recent days. And shortly after McConnell's announcement, his top deputy, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he, too, would back it.
"After listening to the concerns of our conference and law enforcement community, I've been working to improve this legislation so a majority of Senate Republicans can support it," Cornyn said in a statement Tuesday morning. "I appreciate those willing to work with me, rather than point fingers, and I expect these changes will result in additional Republican and law enforcement support."
The final draft of the legislation has yet to be released, although its main backers have been pledging for days to unveil it imminently. Grassley said Tuesday morning that the changes were largely mechanical and that negotiations over the substance were largely done. Grassley, Durbin and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said all of the changes had been cleared with Democrats.
"I believe there will be an overwhelming vote for criminal justice reform," Durbin said Tuesday. Asked when the final draft will be released, Durbin sighed and said: "I'm ready. I've been ready."
Still, strong opposition remained among some conservatives. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the bill's leading critics, said he was prepared to try to amend the bill on the Senate floor.
"Unless I can win substantial changes through the amendment process, I can't support a bill that will still, despite the changes made, release serious, repeat, oftentimes violent felons early from prison. I mean, we're talking thousands of felons being released within weeks or months of the bill passing and in the future, having years cut off their sentences. It's very dangerous for Arkansas' communities and families," he said.
The bill's authors say that these fears are overheated and that provisions written into the legislation will ensure that in practice, truly dangerous or violent inmates will not be released early.
When asked if the legislation is stoppable at this point, Cotton said, "A bill is always stoppable until it's passed across the Senate floor."
He said his goal is "either to change the bill substantially so it's not a threat to public safety or to defeat the bill if I cannot."
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he wants to see the exact language and to consult with Arkansas law enforcement officers and others before deciding.
"They still haven't released the final text. Nobody right now knows exactly what's in the bill. We're looking at it very closely. We're talking to the stakeholders in Arkansas that are on the front lines: Our policemen, our prosecutors, the judges, people like that. But it's difficult right now because we don't have the final text. Certainly we do need to do things to lower the recidivism rate which is so significant right now, so we'll be looking and seeing if we can be helpful in that regard."
In exchange for his backing, Trump is on the cusp of claiming one of the first truly bipartisan legislative achievements of his presidency, a modest but welcome win just a little more than a month after voters chose to end complete Republican control of Washington.
"When you have a president do something that seems out of political character, it can sometimes make a historic difference," Durbin said. "And in this case, with the encouragement of his son-in-law, the president has really helped us."
In an era of partisan gridlock in Washington and deepening policy divisions between conservatives and liberals, the push to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system has stood out as a rare shared objective. A broad coalition of outside advocates -- including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fraternal Order of Police -- has emerged in recent years to push lawmakers in both parties to confront a system all sides agree is costly and, in may cases, unfair.
A number of states have already made similar changes to their own laws, and proponents of the congressional legislation hope that changes to the federal system could in turn spur state-level changes that would affect a far larger prison population.
The bill is more modest than another bipartisan measure introduced in the waning years of President Barack Obama's administration. That legislation would have made most sentencing changes retroactive.
Still, the looming vote will underscore the significant shift in public opinion and policymakers' views over the past two decades, away from the policies of an era when the federal government declared war on drugs and crime toward what lawmakers like to call a "smart on crime" approach.
"We made some decisions 25 years ago here that were wrong," Durbin said. "We imprisoned thousands of people, mainly African-Americans, for sentences that made no sense in light of their crimes. What we have tried to do is repair that damage and be smarter in the way we sentence."
Information for this article was contributed by Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post; by Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 12/12/2018
Print Headline: Sentencing overhaul will get vote; U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton calls bill 'very dangerous for Arkansas' communities and families'