McConnell spent weeks telling those who wanted to see the Senate vote on criminal justice overhaul that there was no time.
According to The Washington Post’s White House reporters Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim, the lawmaker had a point. They wrote: “The majority leader is facing a daunting end-of-year to-do list that includes passing a farm bill, averting a partial government shutdown, and clearing judicial and executive branch nominations. A bill overhauling sentencing laws and the federal prison system, which McConnell had pegged as ‘extremely divisive,’ didn’t appear to be a top priority on his agenda.”
But McConnell had a change of heart — and there appear to be two main reasons for it.
1. Criminal justice reform is one of the few issues that sizable segments of the public supports. From black activists protesting police brutality to white evangelicals deeply loyal to Trump, many have expressed dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system.
2. Trump wants it.
The Post reported that McConnell ultimately decided to advance the bill “at the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation” secured by several senators.
Some may wonder why Trump — a man who has yet to apologize for calling for the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers wrongly suspected of assaulting a white woman — seems so interested in criminal justice reform. But, I suspect a few reasons.
After the midterms, Trump — or at least those close to him — realized that voters were not as supportive of the president’s vision for the country as he thought they were. Trump told his supporters to expect a “red wave,” but there was no such thing. More voters chose Democratic candidates than they had during any other midterm election in history.
Also, though he is viewed by many as one of the most divisive presidents in U.S. history, Trump pledged to be a unifier in his inauguration speech. And to Trump and his advisers, criminal justice reform — an issue that has brought together the likes of liberal CNN commentator Van Jones and senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Trump and reality star Kim Kardashian — could be an area where those on the left and the right might find common ground.
But before a bill gets to Trump, it has to get through Senate Republicans who have very different views when it comes to criminal justice.
Some such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have suggested that the bill is not tough enough on crime — mirroring the view that many Republican voters have. “Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals,” he said in a statement.
Other such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have no problem acknowledging how troublesome the justice system is for some members of society. After dropping out of the 2016 presidential race, Paul wrote:
“Our nation’s laws should be focused on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society. Instead, our criminal justice system too frequently traps non-violent offenders, who are disproportionately African American men, in a cycle of poverty, unemployment and incarceration.”
Given these challenges, it will be surprising to see if Republicans, much less all lawmakers, are able to find common ground before the session ends. But as another year winds down, with Congress having little to show for in terms of policymaking, there will be interest in seeing if the president who promised Americans that they would grow tired of winning will actually score a victory.