- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that senators will vote on a slimmed-down criminal justice reform bill before Congress shuts down for the year, delivering what could be a major victory to President Trump.

“At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that has been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month,” Mr. McConnell said, adding that lawmakers could address the First Step Act by the end of this week.

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had been a major hurdle to the bill, which combines rehabilitation programs for those in prison with more lenient sentencing for some offenders. But he said Tuesday that a new version released this week will get a vote despite a packed December agenda.

A rare coalition of conservatives and liberals is supporting the criminal justice legislation, joining forces with the White House and civil liberties groups.

Mr. Trump applauded Mr. McConnell’s decision.

“Looks like it’s going to be passing, hopefully — famous last words,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s really something we’re all very proud of. Tremendous support from Republicans and tremendous support from Democrats. Lot of years they’ve been waiting for it.”

Some Republican lawmakers said changes to the legislation in recent days makes it more acceptable to them.

“My concern has always been we should not be releasing violent criminals,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican whose amendment to exclude violent criminals was added to the bill. “I think that was helpful in terms of unifying the Republican conference.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said lawmakers “have done everything that [Mr. McConnell] and other Republicans have asked us to do.”

“Two weeks ago we decided we had to do more compromising,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican who had been accused by some colleagues of dragging his feet in whipping for votes on the measure, said he sees “a path forward to pass this legislation.”

“The foundation of this legislation is based on the successful prison reform efforts in states like Texas, Georgia, Rhode Island and other places where we finally realized that being smart on crime is more important than just being tough on crime,” Mr. Cornyn said.

A key Republican opponent of the prison-reform bill said supporters of the measure should kill provisions that would free certain federal inmates before they complete their sentences. Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said the legislation should focus on helping people “who have paid their debts to society.”

“We shouldn’t be slashing sentences and releasing child abusers and serious felons and drug dealers early from prison,” Mr. Cotton said Tuesday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

The White House and Senate supporters of the bill have been pushing for a vote on the measure before the end of the lame-duck session later this month.

Presidential adviser Jared Kushner, who is Mr. Trump’s point-man on the legislation, said Monday night the bill “will accomplish a lot to make our communities safer.”

“The recidivism rate that we have is way too high and not doing anything about that is irresponsible,” Mr. Kushner told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We’re very close right now and hopefully this will get to the floor and we’ll be able to have a big bipartisan celebration before Christmas.”

The First Step Act aims to improve rehabilitation programs for former prisoners and give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders, especially involving drug crimes. It also would allow inmates to apply for reduced sentences retroactively for certain drug offenses.

Mr. Cotton warned that the bill’s proponents are making changes to the measure behind the scenes “seemingly by the hour.”

“There’s not really a bill to be discussed right now,” he said. “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.”

He added: “If they do want to move forward, I certainly hope they would exclude all fentanyl traffickers from any kind of leniency or sentencing reduction.”

Mr. McConnell said the packed Senate schedule could mean Congress will have to work during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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