Under pressure from the White House and a number of his fellow Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said today he will bring a major criminal justice bill, the FIRST STEP Act, to the Senate floor for a vote as early as the end of the week.
"At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently-revised criminal justice bill this month," McConnell said in a floor speech this morning. "I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week."
The bill, which is backed by the Trump White House, a number of police groups, and a bipartisan coalition of criminal justice advocacy organizations, would expand reentry and job training opportunities for federal inmates. It also includes four modest changes to federal sentencing law that would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and expand judges' discretion under the so-called "safety valve."
The FIRST STEP Act passed the House in May by a wide bipartisan margin, and earlier this year McConnell pledged to bring it to the Senate floor after November's midterm elections if it had more than 60 votes in its favor.
However, the legislation faced staunch opposition from conservative Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who dubbed it the "jailbreak" bill and warned it would result in the "early release" of violent criminals. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued Cotton's claims were, in the parlance of our times, fake news, leading to a rare intra-party spat between Senate Republicans.
Despite the insistence of the bill's authors, such as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), that they had the votes, McConnell became noncommittal, citing the short window of time left in the legislative session.
In response, the bill's authors added more exceptions to the language—it had already been filled with exceptions to assuage law enforcement groups—gaining the support of other on-the-fence senators, such Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), who announced his support of the legislation last night. The White House has also been lobbying McConnell through regular channels, as well as the president's idiosyncratic tweets.
McConnell still wouldn't budge, however, leading to accusations from Grassley and others that Senate GOP leadership was intentionally undercounting the bill's support.
"Having led the fight on criminal justice reform for the past six years, I applaud Senator McConnell for scheduling this very important vote," Sen. Rand Paul said in a statement following McConnell's announcement. "This is bipartisan, has the support of President Donald J. Trump, and, simply put, makes common sense."
Supporters of the bill have predicted that it will easily pass the Senate if it comes to a vote, and now it appears they'll have their shot. Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and the chairman of Freedom Partners, said in a statement to Reason that the FIRST STEP Act "is likely to receive overwhelming support from members of both parties on the Senate floor and we hope to see a vote scheduled as soon as possible."
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