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Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working to win Senate passage of a big criminal justice reform package this Congress.

Why it matters: Crime is spiking in big cities. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is still working on a police reform measure. The bipartisan dynamic duo atop the Senate Judiciary Committee is stepping up, passing three piecemeal bills out of their committee.

  • Grassley and Durbin were the original cosponsors of the First Step Act — a sweeping criminal justice bill passed during the Trump administration.
  • The bills they passed out of committee this year would broaden its impact, make it easier for elderly incarcerated people to be released from prison, and prevent prosecutors from using actions for which defendants have been acquitted to win a longer sentence.

What they're saying: It's these three measures, Grassley told Axios, they "hope to package along with potentially other proposals to pass the Senate sometime this Congress."

  • Durbin told Axios in his own statement that he's "committed to bringing these bills to the Senate floor this Congress."

What to watch: The final package also may include a measure for the thousands of inmates who were released to home confinement during the pandemic but will be forced to return behind bars when it's over, a Republican Senate staffer told Axios.

  • In addition, it may address sentencing disparities in crack and powder cocaine offenses.

One challenge will be the crime spike, which has the potential of sapping support from senators afraid of being branded soft on crime.

  • "Negotiations have always been an important part of enacting criminal justice reform, and this time will be no different, especially given the increase in crime we are seeing across the country,” Grassley said.

Between the lines: It's still early, but advocates said they need to take advantage of any opening they see for criminal justice reform — especially since police reform has stalled.

  • They pointed to the House Judiciary Committee recently voting out the bipartisan EQUAL Act. It would eliminate disparities in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses and allow some inmates to appeal their sentence.
  • Even normally critical Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) are cosponsors for the bill, which they take as a good sign.
  • That has supporters believing whatever emerges from the Senate can be packaged with House measures in conference committee and, ultimately, pass Congress.

Go deeper

Republicans scuttle voting rights proposal

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

The Senate failed to advance a new voting rights bill in a 49-51 vote Wednesday, after Republicans successfully filibustered the bill.

Why it matters: The Freedom to Vote Act is the latest attempt by Democrats to counter Republican-led efforts to pass state laws restricting voting access. This marks the third time this year that Republicans have been able to scuttle voting rights legislation, the New York Times noted.

Updated Oct 20, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on immigration reform and refugee resettlement

On Wednesday, October 20th, Axios politics reporter Stef Kight explored the status of bipartisan immigration reform and refugee resettlement policy, featuring Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Welcome.US CEO Nazanin Ash and Welcome.US co-founder and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama Cecilia Muñoz.

Robert Menendez spoke on the current compromises being discussed surrounding immigration reform in the latest reconciliation package, and the most viable ways to pass bipartisan immigration legislation moving forward.

  • On the obstacles to passing bipartisan immigration reform: “I truly believe that reconciliation is the only pathway...toward some type of status for undocumented immigrants in the country, and without reconciliation and without Republican support in an evenly divided Senate, I don’t see how that pathway would be possible.”
  • On disparities in how the US is receiving Afghan versus Haitian refugees: “I have taken a very clear position that a refugee is a refugee and you need to give them the opportunity to make their case under our asylum laws. It should not differentiate between an Afghan or a Haitian.”

Nazanin Ash and Cecilia Muñoz described how Americans are helping refugees from Afghanistan settle into new lives and outlined the challenges that many refugees face upon their arrival.

  • Nazanin Ash on the challenges for refugees coming to America: “I think the two biggest challenges are housing and staffing, everything from making sure that refugees get a warm welcome at the airport, making sure that their apartments are set up...making sure that there is someone to help them navigate a very new environment.”
  • Cecilia Muñoz on the importance of refugee resettlement efforts: “This is who we are as Americans. This is what we do when we’re at our best, and we benefit enormously from these kinds of acts of generosity.”

Thank you Carnegie Corporation of New York for sponsoring this event.

House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress

Steve Bannon. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The House of Representatives voted 229-202 on Thursday to hold former Trump strategist Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Jan. 6 select committee.

Why it matters: The Justice Department will now consider bringing criminal charges against Bannon, marking a significant escalation in the Jan. 6 committee's efforts to enforce subpoenas against Trump allies who refuse to cooperate.