- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have begun working with a bipartisan group of senators weighing legislation on criminal justice reform, an issue that’s emerged as a priority for lawmakers of both parties in recent years but without getting very far on Capitol Hill.

“The reason for having us there was to try to find a path forward for the bill, and a bipartisan path, a consensus path forward,” Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who attended a dinner at the couple’s home last week, told reporters Tuesday.

Whitehouse said it was the second such meeting hosted by Kushner, a top adviser to President Donald Trump who is also the president’s son-in-law and has taken a personal interest in the issue. The first meeting was several weeks ago at the White House.

Other attendees at the dinner included GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all members of the Judiciary Committee, along with White House officials. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, has also taken a lead role on the issue though he was not present at last week’s dinner.

The lawmakers are backing an array of legislative changes including eliminating mandatory life sentences for three-strike drug offenses; giving judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders; and requiring prosecutors to prove defendants actually had criminal intent when they broke a law. The goal in part is to address inflexible sentencing guidelines that have crowded prisons with low-level drug offenders.

Despite support from top lawmakers, similar legislation stalled in the last session of Congress. It faces a variety of obstacles now, including the fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when he was in the Senate, was an opponent of such efforts at reform.

Whitehouse said he raised that issue at last week’s dinner.

“My advice was very simple, you need to solve the problem of DOJ opposition, which puts everybody who wants this done in a very difficult position,” Whitehouse said. “And if the president wants this done, the attorney general reports to him, and he ought to be able to sort that out.”

And even with Kushner and Ivanka Trump getting involved, the issue faces an uncertain future. Congress is dealing with a crowded agenda, including overhauling the tax code and dealing with immigration and must-pass spending legislation, so any consideration of criminal justice bills will not be happening anytime soon.

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