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5. GOP senators battle McConnell for vote on criminal justice reform

Split picture of Senators Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee and Mitch McConnell
Sens. Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee and Mitch McConnell. Photos: Getty Images

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee and Tim Scott called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday and pressured him to move forward with a vote on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill before the end of the year, Scott's office and another Hill source with knowledge of the call confirmed to Axios.

The big picture: President Trump endorsed the legislation, called the First Step Act, last week. But on Thursday, McConnell told Trump there likely wasn't enough time for a vote during the lame duck session, the New York Times reported. The bill will have to go back through the House if it passes the Senate — and waiting until next year when Democrats take control would risk killing it, according to reform advocates.

  • McConnell indicated before the midterms that if the bill had more than 60 votes he'd bring it to the floor, and advocates anticipate a whip count following the Thanksgiving break. But the majority leader has since said that with the spending bill, the farm bill, judicial nominations and other priorities, there just might not be enough time.
  • In a statement, Scott told Axios, "We had a good call and are hopeful that Leader McConnell will create floor time for a bill that we believe has 65–70 senators on board."

What the bill does: If passed, the bill would lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes, allow prisoners to earn time off of their sentences by participating in rehabilitation programs, mandate sanitary products be provided to all women in prisons, outlaw shackling during childbirth and ensure inmates are incarcerated close to home.

Over the past several days, senators and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner have moved to publicly promote the legislation.

  • Kushner and Tomas Philipson, a member of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, wrote an op-ed in USA Today promoting the bill.
  • Graham predicted on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the bill would get 80 votes and publicly called on Trump to "pick up the phone and push the Republican leadership."
  • Grassley told reporters last week that he "would like reciprocity" from McConnell as they "have had a very close working relationship on judges. We've been very very successful." He added that McConnell "ought to be helping the president get his program through."
  • Sen. Rand Paul said the bill would get 65–70 votes on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "It’s all up to one person," he said. "Sen. McConnell has the ability to call any vote he wants to any time."

The Republican opposition to the legislation has come most strongly from Sen. Tom Cotton, who has claimed that the bill would give early release to certain sexual offenders and those who have assaulted law enforcement. His claims were harshly refuted on Twitter by Lee.

  • While some of the largest law enforcement organizations in the U.S. have endorsed the bill, the National Sheriffs’ Association and a few other groups have announced their opposition.
  • Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has also expressed concerns about the bill to Trump, the Washington Post reported, but he doesn't intend to kill the bill.

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