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Divided Republicans stand in way of criminal justice reform

Divided Republicans
A Trump-backed criminal justice reform bill is hitting a major roadblock in the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Republican senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are trying to increase pressure on McConnell to move the bill during the lame-duck session and are getting help from President Trump's children, who have called on Congress to pass the legislation quickly.

Supporters of the Senate deal, which pairs a House-passed prison reform bill with four changes to sentencing laws, are leaning hard into Trump’s support.

But it may not be enough to win over McConnell, who also must answer to key conservatives in his conference who are strongly opposed to the bill.

“Leader McConnell is in a very difficult position. You know, he has to listen to all of the concerns of every one of his members,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network, which supports the legislation.

The GOP leader has warned that Congress has other must-pass bills and a short time frame.

He reportedly told Trump during a closed-door meeting last week that it was unlikely the criminal justice bill could pass before Dec. 14, when the Senate is scheduled to wrap its work for the year.

Sen. Rand Paul (R), a supporter of the bill, said it is all up to his fellow Kentucky senator.

“If Senator Mitch McConnell, from my home state, will allow a vote it gets sixty-five to seventy votes in the Senate,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“It will be one of the most popular things to ever pass,” he added.

Supporters of the bill argue that McConnell’s seeming indifference is political, not personal.

He doesn’t want to put a spotlight on GOP divisions as he tries to navigate a complicated end-of-the-year congressional calendar.

The Senate is set to vote on five nominations when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess. They’re also barreling toward a Dec. 7 deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown, leaving only days to also complete a criminal justice reform bill.

Harris, who said she is “confident” the legislation will get a vote this year, predicted McConnell will increasingly feel pressure to bring up the bill from his home state, where other prominent politicians have been more hands on. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin created a criminal justice working group in 2016. Meanwhile, Paul has been talking up the issue for years and his wife, Kelley Paul, is helping lobby Republican senators to support the bill.

FreedomWorks has directed almost 10,000 “actions” at McConnell since last week from his constituents. Jason Pye, the group’s vice president of legislative affairs, said what McConnell does is the deciding factor at this point.

“It’s kind of unthinkable that he’s going to go up against two of the most popular politicians in his state,” Pye added, referring to Trump and Paul. “[But] McConnell is the person who makes the decision. He’s the whole ballgame right now.”

Conservative opponents of the bill warn it will make their party and the Trump administration look soft on crime. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, says it will result in the early release of “dangerous, repeat felons.”

The statement prompted Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to call Cotton’s warning “fake news.”

Cotton fired back that “sheriffs” called the bill “dangerous.”

Lee then said that if Cotton has “good faith” issues with the bill, he should work with his colleagues and that McConnell should bring the bill to the floor so “debate can begin.”

That would put a dramatic fight on the Senate floor, and place media attention on a public Republican-on-Republican battle that the GOP leader typically wants to avoid.

In addition to Cotton, opponents include Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is mulling a run for governor. He is threatening to object if leadership tries to move the bill on the Senate floor before the end of the year.

Under Senate rules, any one senator could object to quickly moving the bill across the Senate floor. That would force McConnell to set aside days of floor time — he reportedly warned Trump that it could take up to 10 days — to get the criminal justice bill to a final vote, time that Republican leaders are warning they do not have as they juggle other items on their end-of-the-year to-do list.

“Obviously we don’t have enough time without consent to process a bill and still do the other things we need to do,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s No. 2.

Grassley and other Republican senators are launching a full court press to sway McConnell as they try to out maneuver conservatives who are demanding a hearing on the legislation—tactics supporters argue are actually meant to delay the bill until next year when Democrats will control the House and could want to reopen negotiations.

Grassley is taking a multi-pronged approach: a personal plea that McConnell owes him “reciprocity” for the party’s ability to push through dozens of court nominees and near daily tweets telling McConnell to get on board with Trump.

Grassley, in one of the latest tweets, noted that the bill is “designed for strong Senate support” and that McConnell “said if 60 votes we can bring to floor” this year.

Republicans are getting help from Trump’s inner circle, with adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump each urging Congress to pass the bill.

Kushner and Thomas Philipson, a member of the president’s council of economic advisers, touted the details and Trump’s support of the bill in a USA Today op-ed, writing that the reforms “supported by the president are an important broad-based approach that will, hopefully, benefit not only prisoners, but also the American public.”

Trump endorsed the bill last week, in a major win for supporters who hoped that his blessing would be enough to overcome conservative opposition. But since then his attention has wandered as he’s jumped between topics, including border security, aid to Pakistan and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Harris predicted that the White House would “lean in hard” for the bill and that there would be a “tsunami” of support for the Senate legislation.

Pye added that Trump needs to lobby directly and say “he wants the bill on the floor.”

Trump will likely need to be involved heavily in the down-to-the-wire lobbying if the bill is going to get moved this year.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is expected to be the next Judiciary Committee chairman, said that Trump should directly lobby McConnell to give it a vote this year.

“I’m urging Sen. McConnell to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. It would get 80 votes,” Graham told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Mr. President, pick up the phone and push the Republican leadership."

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