The good news for the US Senate: Not only will they have more time to confirm judges to the federal bench, they’ll also have time to change the rules on sentencing. The bad news: Say goodbye to your Christmas vacation! Under pressure from Donald Trump to move on criminal justice reform legislation, Mitch McConnell announced that the upper chamber would remain open between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Ho ho ho to you too:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Senate will take up a criminal justice bill that would be the largest sentencing overhaul in decades.
McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor that senators should be prepared to stay in session the week following Christmas if necessary to complete their work.
That’s threat McConnell is using to get senators on both sides of the aisle into an appropriately, ahem “collaborative” mood. After all, today’s the 11th, and it should be possible to get this done before Christmas, assuming that the budget deadline on the 21st doesn’t interfere with the legislative calendar. If some start obstructing the process, however, McConnell warns that he’s not bluffing on OT:
Senators could turn to the new text as early as the end of this week, he said. Given the number of items now on the Senate floor agenda, McConnell issued a warning about the schedule for the end of the year.
“Unless we approach all this work in a highly collaborative, productive way and take real advantage of unanimous consent to expedite proceedings, it is virtually certain that the Senate will need to be in session between Christmas and New Year’s in order to complete this work,” McConnell said. “The Senate is a consent-based institution. Expediting this work would require an extraordinary degree of collaboration and hard work from everyone. So members should either prepare to cooperate and work together — or prepare for a very, very long month.”
The timing seems curious for this issue, though. There is a strong bipartisan coalition for overhauling sentencing guidelines; Chuck Grassley estimates that the bill will get 75 votes in the upper chamber, and Trump’s on board too. Until this morning, however, Grassley and majority whip John Cornyn didn’t have the same count, with friction arising over Cornyn’s role in keeping the bill off the agenda:
Republicans pushing the sentencing and prison reform bill privately and publicly say he’s essentially undermining the push by not accurately assessing support for it or supporting it himself, a charge Cornyn rejects.
Cornyn has to juggle his personal views of the effort with his job as deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been reluctant to take up the bill because it sharply divides his conference — even with a coveted endorsement from President Donald Trump.
The result is that Cornyn finds himself in the middle of an internal GOP firefight in the final days of the lame duck. And with his vote-counting acumen under attack from outside the Capitol, Cornyn said he finds the criticism “bizarre” as he deals with the warring factions of his party and a year-end time crunch. …
Indeed, Cornyn’s role in the GOP at this moment would be difficult for anyone: McConnell is “really reluctant” to bring the bill to the floor, Grassley said. And Cornyn’s job is to assess support for the legislation in the caucus. He can’t exactly twist arms for the bill if McConnell is simply trying to get a dispassionate view of the conference, even if supporters think a lot of undecided Republicans would vote “yes” if forced to.
“My job as whip is to give Leader McConnell an accurate count of where the conference is. Because he doesn’t want to put anything on the floor and be surprised,” Cornyn said. “A majority of the conference either whipped ‘no’ or ‘undecided.’ And we need to get those undecideds into the ‘yes’ column to get at least a majority of a majority in favor of the bill. And I think that will be persuasive.”
McConnell’s decision moots that internecine fight, so that’s one positive development. Why not wait until the next session of Congress and use it for some horse-trading with Nancy Pelosi, though? Democrats want to claim some credit, and it might be worth an extra billion or two for a border wall to get it. That might be the problem. Trump might want full credit for shepherding this effort through Congress rather than share it with Pelosi. Having made McConnell do an about-face on scheduling it for a vote by whipping up more Republican support, Trump’s in a position for a victory lap.
Is this a good bill, though? Not according to Tom Cotton, who told Hugh Hewitt this morning that there wasn’t a bill to discuss:
HH: So what is the status, is the conference going to meet again to discuss this? Has the Leader given any kind of guidance as to when a decision will be made, because I just don’t think you have the time at this point to have a serious debate about this bill?
TC: Hugh, there’s not really a bill to be discussed right now. I mean, the proponents dropped a bill Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving. By their own public account, they have engaged in repeated changes to the bill, yet those are not being made public. So at this point, the majority leader doesn’t really have a piece of legislation to put on the floor and vote on. And as you say, I mean, here it is Tuesday, and our now target date for adjournment is next Thursday. And there’s many other pieces of legislation, many important nominations to entertain as well.
And Cotton isn’t happy with whatever’s been floated so far:
HH: Let me turn to the issue of the prison reform/jailbreak bill, which I’ve talked with you about before. The more I talk to people, the more they agree with me that if fentanyl dealers are eligible for any kind of grace under this bill, they don’t like this bill, because they agree with me that fentanyl is akin to dealing an instant killer. It’s not like cocaine. It’s not like dope. It’s an instant killer. What’s the status of the bill right now, Senator Cotton?
TC: Hugh, we don’t really know, because there’s ongoing changes, seemingly by the hour from the advocates of this bill that they’re not releasing in public. It’s getting pretty late in the day in this lame duck session to be making changes in such a highly-complex area of law that have such grave consequences for public safety. If they do want to move forward, I certainly hope they would exclude all fentanyl traffickers from any kind of leniency or sentencing reduction. But if, Hugh, if what they really want to do is reduce recidivism, which we should do in our country, people who have paid their debts to society should have a chance to get back on their feet and not be a menace to society, it’s very simple. Simply delete from the bill all the provisions that allow people to get out of prison early, that reduce sentences for repeat or serious offenders, and that apply these changes retroactively. There is common ground on trying to provide prisoners education such as GED programs or job training in technical career skills, giving them counseling and mentoring programs, especially faith-based ones. We should be focusing on that common ground. We shouldn’t be slashing sentences and releasing child abusers and serious felons and drug dealers early from prison.
The fentanyl issue might be a big deal with law enforcement, too. It’s so dangerous that even casual contact creates a critical hazard for police who come across it. It’s one reason that first responders carry Narcan with them, including police. Fentanyl trafficking therefore carries a bigger risk than other drug trafficking because of the toxic nature of incidental contact, something not present with other illicit drugs.
For everything else, though, the sometimes draconian sentences handed down for non-violent offenses require some action. Incarceration costs a lot of money, and most people would prefer that hard time be limited to violent felons or massive fraudsters, not dealers and users. If Cotton wants to make an exception for fentanyl, and there’s a very good case to be made for it, then the amendment process would provide such a vehicle for that purpose.
If this effort has as much bipartisan support as Grassley says, and if the president’s on board with it, hash these issues out in a floor debate and find some middle ground on the rest. If a reasoned debate and an effective bill can’t be accomplished in the remaining time on this session’s legislative calendar, then Cotton’s correct to call for it to move to the next session of Congress. However, that shouldn’t be an excuse to keep punting on an issue that’s been lingering already for years. Federal sentencing rules are Congress’ responsibility, so punting is unwise as well.
Addendum: McConnell got an attaboy from the president:
Thanks to Leader McConnell for agreeing to bring a Senate vote on Criminal Justice this week! These historic changes will make communities SAFER and SAVE tremendous taxpayers dollars. It brings much needed hope to many families during the Holiday Season.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 11, 2018