“He doesn’t like the bill,” Republican donor Doug Deason, a key White House ally, said of the measure. Referring to the former Alabama senator and ex-attorney general, Deason added: “He's a Jeff Sessions-style, lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy.”
White House officials say McConnell doesn’t want to have a vote unless the overwhelming majority of Republicans will vote for it — although Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said this week that 28 or 30 GOP senators support the bill. There are 51 Senate Republicans, and nearly all of the 49 Senate Democrats — if not all — are expected to back it.
Grassley’s figures appear to reflect the whip count held by the White House, which estimated 80 votes in favor of the legislation, one official said.
McConnell said at a Wall Street Journal event this week that more than half of his conference either oppose the bill or are undecided.
“It’s extremely divisive inside the Senate Republican conference,” McConnell, who deplores fights that split his ranks, said Monday evening. Lawmakers have to take up a farm bill extension and legislation to fund parts of the government before the end of the year, and McConnell would also like to confirm as many judges as possible before then, his allies say.
When asked about McConnell’s private remarks, a spokesman said the legislation was still being drafted and he could not predict the outcome on an unfinished bill.
In turn, McConnell’s reluctance has frustrated White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and others in the administration who believe the votes are there but that McConnell is dragging his feet. In recent days, Kushner has ramped up his private push among senators — visiting Republican lunches, strategizing with the bill’s key authors and even sending out a thick packet of material promoting the criminal justice bill to Senate Republican offices. The book includes letters from advocacy groups backing the bill, media coverage of it and a summary of the legislation.
On Thursday afternoon, Fox News Corp. took a rare step of endorsing the bill, in the first news release issued by former White House aide Hope Hicks. It was an unusual move for the corporation.
“Fox supports the bipartisan First Step Act to limit mandatory minimum sentences, prevent recidivism and expand rehabilitation,” the statement read.
Trump announced his endorsement of the measure last month and has pushed McConnell in private conversations to put the bill up on the Senate floor for a vote. Yet Trump’s advocacy has not changed the calculus for McConnell, who faces reelection in 2020, the people familiar with the majority leader’s comments said. And some of the bill’s supporters say they wish the president would do more — like pressure senators on Twitter or make more frequent and forceful public comments on the legislation.
Supporters have rushed to make minor changes to the legislation meant to assuage concerns. Republican opponents have said that the bill would inadvertently allow people convicted of violent crimes to qualify for its benefits.
McConnell also met privately with a group of criminal justice reform advocates early last week, and praised the group for their work on the legislation.
“I believe there’s a majority already available for the Senate majority leader (and that) with the improvements in specificity in the language, that several more Republican senators will join in supporting the First Step Act,” said Craig DeRoche, the head of advocacy for Prison Fellowship, which has been lobbying in favor for the bill. “President Trump has been absolutely essential and critical to this bill having the support that it has.”
But the divisive nature of the bill among Republicans is not the only issue. Earlier this week, McConnell said the Senate is simply running out of time to “shoehorn” such an “extremely controversial” legislation into the Senate schedule that could eat up seven to 10 days of floor time.
Several White House aides said the goal now is that it “eventually” happens, in the words of one senior West Wing official.