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Congress Needs A Reckoning. Will This Bill Do It?

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Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

While President Donald Trump interest in prison reform, a schism within the GOP leaves little room for a win in bringing any criminal justice bill to the floor. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump-backed prisons bill DOA in the Senate

By BURGESS EVERETT and ELANA SCHOR

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Internal divisions among Senate Republicans will delay consideration of a prison reform bill backed by President Donald Trump that’s set to pass the House this week — and potentially prevent the legislation from becoming law this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is highly unlikely to try to move the bill while Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is opposed to it, according to Republican senators and aides. Still smarting that his broader criminal justice bill never came to the floor in 2016, Grassley is holding out for a more sweeping bill this time around rather than the narrower approach that the House and some GOP senators are taking.

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And McConnell is not interested in circumventing his Judiciary Committee chairman and provoking an internecine fight that would eat up weeks of floor time. Plus, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former GOP senator from Alabama, also opposes the legislation, according to a person close to him.

A Republican senator said flatly of McConnell’s view of the bill right now: “It’s not on the priority list.”

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McConnell’s chief deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), has introduced the House’s bill in the Senate and has embraced the narrower approach because Trump supports it and it can conceivably become law. The bill would authorize money for new programs aimed at decreasing repeat offenses, as well as make other changes aimed at bolstering prison conditions.

“As we speak, legislation is working through Congress to reform out federal prisons. My administration strongly supports these efforts and I urge the House and Senate to get together ... work out their differences, get a bill to my desk. I will sign it,” Trump said Friday.

But Cornyn conceded that Grassley’s opposition presents a high hurdle.

“We obviously need to work with the Judiciary Committee and other to see if we can get it done. And I think Sen. Grassley still wants to do a broader bill. Which I’ve supported in the past but I just don’t think is feasible,” Cornyn said in an interview. “We just have to keep working.”

Grassley could be convinced to change his mind — though he indicated in a recent interview that he was unlikely to back down.

The issue is a touchy subject for a Republican Party that’s aligned itself with tough on crime policies in recent years. Social conservatives largely opposed sentencing reforms tucked into Grassley’s 2016 legislation, dooming it to internal divisions.

“It’s a mistake for sentencing reform to include violent offenders or those who commit gun crimes, so I have opposed the most recent iterations of the legislation,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) of Grassley’s approach. Cruz said he wants to study the narrower House bill before coming to a position on it.

Another Republican who opposed Grassley’s broader bill when it cleared the Judiciary panel in February, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, described the measure as “still controversial even if you just do the prison reform” given the internal GOP split.

But the prison reform segment of the legislation mollified some conservatives who came out against the more comprehensive criminal justice reform. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said he was supportive of “parts” of the House bill, but was notably more bullish on that than Grassley’s broader approach and said he and Sessions “may differ on this," a rare break between the two.

“As long as they are talking about drug rehabilitation, recidivism and job training, I’m all in. Where they were going before is sentencing some of the sentencing guidelines,” Perdue said. “I felt like going that way was the wrong to go.”

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President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images >

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Grassley netted votes from six of the 10 Republicans on his committee for his criminal justice package, the product of lengthy negotiations with Democrats led by Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). He and Durbin have remained aligned on a public push for their broader legislation even as the House pursues the narrower, prison-focused bill that’s expected to pass as soon as Tuesday.

The Iowan’s commitment to addressing sentencing as well as prison policy, however, underscores the deep divide among Senate Republicans on the issue. While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence touted their interest in prison reform during a White House summit on Friday, and the influential Koch network backs the bill, that schism within McConnell’s conference leaves little room for a win in bringing any criminal justice bill to the floor.

“We’re not together. And that’s not to disparage anybody on either side,” Kennedy said in an interview. “And generally speaking, the majority leader doesn’t bring up stuff that’s going to cause a big old fight.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is on the other side of the debate from Kennedy, having backed Grassley’s legislation in the committee. He also acknowledged, however, that McConnell is unlikely to carve out time for an issue that cleaves his party.

Grassley’s bill has 13 Republican cosponsors, giving him room to hope that he can change McConnell’s mind. In an interview with POLITICO last month, he noted that his broader bill is “the only one that came out of committee, it’s the one that has the most support — and it includes prison reform.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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