The Senate’s criminal justice reform bill took a big, bipartisan step forward Monday night, but it still faces one big hurdle: Sen. Tom Cotton’s amendments.
The Arkansas Republican is pushing changes, introduced with Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), that could blow up the fragile compromise on legislation to reform prisons and sentencing laws.
The amendments would bar more offenders from participating in the bill’s earned-time credit program and would require the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims when a prisoner is released early. The amendments also would require authorities to track arrests of ex-convicts after they’re released from prison early.
In an op-ed published Monday in National Review, Cotton argued that his “conservative friends and colleagues … have jumped on the bandwagon too soon.”
“A number of serious felonies, including violent crimes, are still eligible for early release in the version of the bill the Senate will vote on in a matter of days,” Cotton wrote. “In short, the First Step Act [criminal justice overhaul] flunks their basic test to protect public safety.”
But Democrats argue that Cotton’s amendments are nothing more than a strategy to sink the broader bill. They note that the amendments would divide the coalition of lawmakers and interest groups in favor of the bill and that the changes would only complicate the process for getting the bill through the House.
“They’re designed to kill it so I’m a no vote on all three,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) “I can’t see how they could possibly go through.”
For some Democrats, the passage of the amendments would also kill their ultimate vote for the criminal justice reform bill.
“The Cotton amendments basically undo the provisions of the bill, so I’d hope that both Democrats and Republicans will not vote for this amendment,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), adding that “if the amendments basically undo the … bill, then I can’t vote for it.”
But other Democrats said that if the amendments passed, they would need to wait and see before deciding whether to approve the final bill. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) called the amendments a “poison pill” but added that he had not made a decision on how he’d vote if the amendments do get attached.
“There may be a couple I could live with but I think they’re all bad bills,” Jones said.
The Cotton amendments are the latest obstacle in a dramatic push to get criminal justice reform through in the lame-duck session — a priority for President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Until last week, the prospect of criminal justice reform seemed dead, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reluctant to bring a bill to the floor because it divides his caucus. But last week, he said he would bring the bill to the floor.
The Senate voted 82-12 Monday to move forward with the bill, moving closer to a final vote. In addition to Cotton and Kennedy, the Republicans who voted against moving forward were Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming; Richard Burr of North Carolina; Mike Enzi of Wyoming; Jon Kyl of Arizona; Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska; Jim Risch of Idaho; Mike Rounds of South Dakota; Ben Sasse of Nebraska; and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The Cotton amendments, on which the Senate will likely vote on Wednesday, face an uphill battle amid Democratic resistance as well as opposition from some Republican senators, including Mike Lee of Utah.
“I think there’s a good chance of defeating it, but I don’t have a vote count for you,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.
He added that he might support a final criminal justice reform bill with the amendments attached, but that such a bill would lose the Democratic votes needed to pass.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he was “still evaluating the amendments” and he was “talking to Sen. Cotton and his staff too to see if there are some ways we might find consensus.”
The amendments have prompted last-ditch efforts to kill them from advocacy groups, including the American Conservative Union, FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network and Americans for Prosperity. In a letter sent Monday to Senate leadership, the groups wrote that one of the amendments “would make virtually all federal prisoners ineligible for earned time credits, with the exceptions of low-level drug offenders and white collar criminals” and was “antithetical to the heart of the bill.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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