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Grassley says criminal justice bill would pass ‘overwhelmingly’ if McConnell allows vote

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has "never said he's against" the criminal justice bill. (Video: Washington Post Live)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) voiced frustration Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to allow a vote on a bipartisan criminal justice bill that has the backing of President Trump.

Grassley said that he has met a target for support set by McConnell and that senators should take up the legislation by the end of the year, arguing that Republicans could even delay the confirmation of some judicial nominees to create more time.

“All I can say is if McConnell will bring this up, it will pass overwhelmingly,” Grassley said during a “Washington Post Live” event.

The bill, backed by an unusual left-right coalition both inside Capitol Hill and among advocacy networks nationwide, would ease some mandatory minimum sentences and gives judges more flexibility in some cases, while implementing efforts to help rehabilitate prisoners.

Trump priority of criminal justice overhaul bitterly divides Senate Republicans

The legislation is overwhelmingly supported by Democrats but has divided Senate Republicans, with opponents arguing that it is soft on crime.

Grassley said Tuesday that McConnell had previously told him that he would allow the bill to come to the floor if there were 65 to 70 votes for it in the chamber.

“We’re there,” Grassley told Post reporter Robert Costa, relaying that more than half of the 51 Senate Republicans support the bill. “Let’s say 28, let’s say 30.”

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who appeared alongside Grassley at the Post event, said support among the 49-member Democratic caucus is “solid,” though he stopped short of guaranteeing that every Democrat would vote for the bill.

Grassley argued that waiting until next year would hurt the chances of passing the bill.

Democrats, who are taking over control of the House, would probably try to make the legislation more liberal, which would cost GOP support in the Senate, he reasoned.

“It seems to me we have an opportunity to deliver,” Grassley said. “It gives Republicans an opportunity to deliver a bipartisan victory for the president of the United States.”

Why isn’t Mitch McConnell bringing up criminal justice reform?

Durbin agreed that senators should act now.

“I agree with Chuck 100 percent,” he said. “You seize the moment.”

The House has passed a version of the legislation that doesn’t include sentencing changes, but lawmakers there are confident that it would quickly clear their chamber if the Senate does.

Grassley argued that McConnell should give him “some consideration” for his efforts in fulfilling one of his priorities: confirming federal judges.

“I think I’ve delivered pretty well,” Grassley said, referring to his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings. “So maybe I should have some consideration for that.”

Grassley argued that it would be a reasonable “trade-off” to delay confirmation of some judges whose nominations are still pending to create more time for passage of the criminal justice bill. Those nominations can be taken up next year, when the Republican majority in the Senate will be larger, he said.

Grassley also said that passage of the legislation could be accomplished more quickly than McConnell envisions.

“He’s told us 10 days,” Grassley said. “This could be done in three or four days real easily.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.