Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker has privately voiced concerns directly to President Trump about a new bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, according to a GOP senator Whitaker met with Thursday, amid growing opposition to the legislation Trump endorsed with much fanfare this week.
Whitaker has concerns with the “drug part of the bill,” according to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and has spoken about the concerns with the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. Whitaker’s particular concern is how the bill would change drug sentences, and he told Graham that he has also expressed his issues with the bill to the president.
“He said he doesn’t want to kill it,” Graham said Thursday. “He just wanted to express his concerns.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said only that Whitaker and Graham had a “good meeting.”
The bill, formally introduced Thursday evening, would make a number of significant changes to sentencing laws. For example, it would lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, including reducing the “three strikes” penalty from life behind bars to 25 years. It would also reduce mandatory minimum sentences that go into effect when a firearm is used during a violent crime or drug offense.
Graham said that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, had persuaded the president to support the bill, and that he was impressed with Kushner.
Yet Whitaker’s private concerns have also been voiced publicly by some of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, who are nonetheless vehemently opposed to any efforts to ease mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has been in continual contact with the White House throughout the year on the issue, stressed earlier Thursday that, while he had not yet seen the text, “at the height of the drug epidemic in our country, we should not be cutting sentences for serious drug traffickers.”
“We’ve had productive conversations all year long,” Cotton said of his discussions with the White House. “In the end, we have a principled disagreement on it, and that’s where we’ll end up.”
The legislation also faced more setbacks on Thursday when the National Sheriffs’ Association and several other law enforcement groups released a letter announcing that they would oppose the criminal justice overhaul bill “in its current form.” The measure’s supporters had hoped the sheriffs group would at least stay neutral on the bill to improve its prospects among Republicans — and with Trump, who has privately indicated that he would like to see more law enforcement groups endorse the measure.
Still, the influential Fraternal Order of Police supports it, as do groups such as the National District Attorneys Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re trying to get everyone,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the chief Democratic author of the bill, who had discussions with White House officials on Thursday. But “we’re not gonna get everybody.”
Senate Republican leaders, who control the floor schedule, have also been publicly noncommittal. The bill’s supporters are now scrambling to round up votes to show Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the legislation has more than enough support to pass the chamber.
But McConnell’s top deputy, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), echoed a message McConnell relayed earlier this week: that the Senate is simply running out of time.
“I support getting the bill some floor time and getting it to move forward,” Cornyn said. “I’m a little skeptical about our ability to do that during a lame-duck, absent consent . . . nothing happens quickly around here.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) met privately with several key House lawmakers pushing criminal justice reform earlier Thursday, to ensure that the compromise officially unveiled Thursday could pass the House in the coming weeks if the Senate clears it. Among those in the meeting were Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.).
“It’s a strong step in the right direction, and we’re hopeful that the Senate is going to act sooner rather than later to begin the process of ending mass incarceration in America,” Jeffries said. “Doug Collins and I are both confident that if the Senate moves on the proposal that is currently before them that includes sentencing reform, that we’d have a strong bipartisan vote in the House and can send the bill to the president.”