For weeks, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded the same warning to people pushing him for a Senate vote on a criminal justice overhaul this year: The clock was running out.
“He’d say, ‘Where’s the time, where’s the time?’ ” one White House official said.
McConnell (R-Ky.) had a point: 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 his public pessimism only strengthened the resolve of advocates, Republican senators supportive of the bill and the White House — particularly senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had already marshaled endorsements from a diverse coalition and asked police union officials, evangelical leaders, and prominent GOP donors and activists to call McConnell, another White House official said.
And then there was the unequivocal support from President Trump, who never waffled publicly from the legislation despite criticism from some law-and-
order conservatives that the First Step Act could let some violent offenders off the hook from serving out their sentences — a claim that the bill’s authors vehemently dispute.
“There were conversations on a regular basis where the president said he would like to see this addressed,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who made a pivotal endorsement of the legislation Tuesday. “Based on the movement on the bill and I think the momentum, I think that helped Senator McConnell make the decision.”
McConnell announced Tuesday that the Senate will vote on the criminal justice overhaul bill — which would ease some mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders — this month and could begin working on it as early as this week. His decision to advance the bill came “at the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation” secured by several senators, McConnell said.
The Kentucky Republican, who is up for reelection in 2020, has not taken a personal position on the bill, telling reporters Tuesday that he is still reviewing its details.
Trump said Tuesday from the Oval Office: “Looks like it’s going to be passing, hopefully — famous last words — on a very bipartisan way. And it’s really something we’re all very proud of. And again, tremendous support from Republicans and tremendous support from Democrats.”
Yet McConnell’s move to take up the sentencing and prison overhaul comes as a stark turnaround after the past several days, when he had sent private signals that he had no plans to give the legislation — which has proved deeply controversial within the Senate Republican ranks — a vote.
“I was surprised when McConnell announced he would take up the bill, and so were many advocates I talk to,” said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “This seemed dead.”
Still, McConnell was careful never to weigh in directly on the merits of the bill, particularly in private conversations with advocates and his own colleagues pressuring him for a vote who had grown increasingly frustrated with the majority leader’s reluctance.
In one recent telephone conversation, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested that McConnell himself was personally opposed to the legislation Grassley drafted. McConnell pushed back; Grassley recalled the majority leader insisting he had never said he was against the bill.
“I just got to assume that he’s got to get the work of the United States Senate done and this was a lower priority for him,” Grassley said Tuesday of McConnell’s decision.
McConnell sounded a similar message in a meeting with about a half-dozen advocates of overhauling the criminal justice system two weeks ago. During that sit-down in his Capitol office, McConnell praised the advocates for their work on the legislation and detailed some of the hurdles ahead — but emphasized that he wasn’t one of them, according to attendees.
“He made very clear that he wasn’t putting his hands on the scale and that he wasn’t our obstacle,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network. “That is verbatim what he said.”
McConnell also couldn’t ignore the growing number of senators lining up behind the legislation. In private, Republican senators had hashed out a number of changes approved by law enforcement groups that were meant to tighten some potential loopholes pointed out by the bill’s critics.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), onetime skeptics of the effort, endorsed the legislation in recent days after securing changes. And Cornyn himself formally announced his support after cutting a deal with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Among the revisions Cornyn got was a new provision that would bar those serving time under so-called stacking charges — which make it a federal crime to brandish a gun while committing another crime, even if the firearm isn’t used — from earning time credits that could reduce their sentences.
In a statement, Cornyn thanked those who were “willing to work with me, rather than point fingers” — underscoring how testy the debate had become in recent weeks.
“I think he’s the leader of the majority,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), another senator who has worked for months to draft the legislation, said of McConnell’s decision. “And the majority wants a vote.”
The White House officials said McConnell’s whip count finally showed the bill was not as much of a political threat to him as he thought. The administration believes there are about 80 votes in favor of the First Step Act in the Senate, although Grassley estimated the count at 75.
“I believe there will be an overwhelming vote for criminal justice reform,” Durbin said Tuesday. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another senator who had been working on the legislation, said he expects potential “unanimity” on the bill from the 49-member Democratic caucus.
The significant movement on the legislation is also a major victory for Kushner, who has been on the phone daily with key lawmakers, one administration official said. Kushner has regularly pressured Trump to be more forceful in public about the legislation and showed the president the broad array of support from law enforcement groups and faith leaders.
“He realized, ‘You know, why not? I see the yes; where is the no?’ ” the administration official said of Trump, summing up the president’s decision to favor the criminal justice effort.
Trump has been resolute even as some in the White House were not as bullish about the effort as Kushner. For instance, outgoing White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has questioned whether it should be on Trump’s agenda, according to a senior White House official.
“We would not be where we are if Jared Kushner wasn’t involved in it,” Grassley said.
The final draft has yet to be released, even though the legislation’s main authors have been promising for days to unveil it soon. Grassley said Tuesday that the changes were largely mechanical and that negotiations over the substance were largely finished.
Republican leaders are urging senators to cooperate so the floor debate on the criminal justice bill can be relatively contained, particularly with the limited time left in the year. But Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said it was “to be determined” whether he would drag out all the time he can, which could eat up to 10 days of critical floor time.
And others made it clear that they were highly unlikely to budge from their opposition.
“I haven’t seen the new version,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said Tuesday. “My feeling about the old version is that I could improve it with a shredder.”
The latest draft takes from a popular bill passed by the House earlier this year that would overhaul the federal prison system and implement a number of initiatives to help reduce recidivism rates. Senators then added several revisions to sentencing laws, including language that would reduce the “three strikes” penalty for drug felonies from life behind bars to 25 years.
The legislation would reduce the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses for those now serving time for those crimes. It would eliminate the stacking practice in future crimes, and it gives judges more discretion to issue sentences shorter than the mandatory minimums for lower-level crimes.
The House would have to clear it again if the Senate passes it in the coming days. But the administration and key senators have been regularly in touch with House lawmakers to ensure whatever the Senate ultimately approves would also pass there.
“This is about redemption, and giving many Americans another chance to achieve a more fulfilling future,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday. “I encourage the Senate to act swiftly on this legislation, and the House stands ready to get it done.”
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.