Mitch McConnell says the Senate will vote on criminal justice reform this month, handing victory to Trump

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate will vote on a major criminal justice reform bill in December, paving the way for an easing of America's federal sentencing laws and handing a victory to President Donald Trump, who endorsed the legislation last month.
  • The Kentucky Republican announced on the floor of the Senate that his decision was made at Trump's request and followed unspecified changes to the bill.
US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks as US President Donald Trump looks on during a 'Make America Great Again' rally at the Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmond, Kentucky, on October 13, 2018. 
Nicholas Kamm  | AFP | Getty Images
US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks as US President Donald Trump looks on during a 'Make America Great Again' rally at the Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmond, Kentucky, on October 13, 2018. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate will vote on a major criminal justice reform bill in December, paving the way for an easing of America's federal sentencing laws and handing a victory to President Donald Trump, who endorsed the legislation last month.

The Kentucky Republican announced on the floor of the Senate that his decision was made at Trump's request and followed unspecified changes to the bill.

Tensions about the legislation had escalated in recent days. Trump on Friday publicly called on McConnell to bring the bill to a vote. McConnell has been reluctant to do so, citing other pressing legislative matters and cautioning that there may not be enough votes.

Republicans have been sharply divided over the legislation, which would reduce the three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years for drug offenses, and give judges the power to bypass the minimum sentences altogether for certain offenders.

But it has earned support from a broad coalition of lawmakers and activists, including from within the White House, where Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner is a key proponent.

GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have also emerged as vocal proponents of the overhaul. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has claimed the United States has an "under-incarceration problem," has led opposition to the effort.

The United States Sentencing Commission estimates that roughly 2,250 inmates per year could have their sentences reduced under the reforms included in the bill, called the First Step Act. One major reform would eliminate "charge stacking," which extends sentences for possessing a gun while committing another crime, for first-time offenders.

Graham said Tuesday that passing the bill would be "a hell of a way to end 2018."

"If it happens, it will be because of Jared Kushner and his team and the president getting behind it and our Democratic friends I hope have been very reasonable," Graham told reporters. "I know there's a lot of anxiety about working with Trump, but this is a case where I think it's gonna be a win-win."

The looming end of the year contributed to a frenzy to deliver a vote before a new Congress is seated. McConnell said that lawmakers should expect to work on the legislation over the holidays. Reaching a major criminal justice reform compromise could be much more difficult starting next month, as a progressive slate of Democrats elected in November takes office.

The House easily passed a version of the First Step Act in May, though it was criticized by some liberals who said it did not go far enough.

McConnell said the Senate would have to work efficiently to get the bill through in time.

"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 Tuesday.

Largely behind the scenes, Republicans have been proposing changes in recent weeks that could reduce the impact of the bill but generate more support from their caucus. Those changes include a broadening of the categories of offenders who would not be eligible for sentence reduction.

On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced his support for the bill after gaining White House approval of an amendment that he said would exclude violent offenders from early release.

"I'm happy to report that, after working closely with the White House and the sponsors of this bill, they have decided to accept my amendment," he said in a statement. "This new version of the bill resolves my concerns, and is one that I wholeheartedly support and cosponsor."

It's not clear how many Republicans will support the legislation. Sources told The Hill that the official Senate whip count stands at 16 Republicans in favor as of Sunday, though alternative counts put the number at as high as 30 of the 51 GOP members of the Senate.

Lawmakers are expected to continue to hammer out the details of the legislation in the approach to the New Year. McConnell advised the chamber Tuesday to "prepare for a very, very long month."