Policy

White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort

Cornyn 'optimistic' but GOP fissures, floor time posing problems

President Barack Obama speaks as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. listens during a meeting at the White House on Tuesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama is eager to rekindle work with congressional leaders on a bipartisan bill to overhaul the country’s criminal justice laws -- but this key legacy item could falter due to a crowded legislative calendar and dissension within the GOP ranks.

The Obama administration devoted an entire day last week to reinforcing the need for reform when the president reduced the sentences of 61 prisoners being held on drug-related charges and dined with a group that had previously had their prison time reduced.  

The message from the White House was clear, with senior aides saying they are working with members of both parties to secure a package that can get to Obama’s desk and receive his signature.  

Administration officials are "quite optimistic" that the Senate will take action on a criminal justice overhaul bill "quite soon," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said.  

But in a series of interviews Tuesday, Senate leaders who have been working closely with White House officials, sounded more cautious.  

“It doesn’t seem to be moving,” said Senate Judiciary member Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.  

Securing agreement on still-unresolved issues and making sure there is adequate floor time to complete work on the bill are Flake’s biggest concerns.  

“We’ve got to get agreement on some things so it doesn’t take much time,” he said.  

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, a leading author of the chamber’s emerging bill, said “there are always problems with floor time.” That’s why he and other proponents are working to assuage senators’ concerns in hopes of “maybe getting a time agreement so we can do this when an opportunity opens up.”  

But just when remains murky.  

That’s because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intends to spend months passing all 12 of the fiscal 2017 appropriations bills. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said Tuesday that he plans to inquire about just where a criminal justice overhaul bill could fit into the truncated election-year floor schedule. Senators will be on recess for most of July and August and again in October.  

Once the Senate finishes work on a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization measure now under consideration, there likely will be time for one piece of legislation before the appropriations work begins.  

But that spot could go to a National Institutes of Health bill introduced recently by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash.  

As the clock ticks down on the legislative calendar, Cornyn and others are working to bridge a divide among Republicans. Proponents are trying rally broader GOP support for a revised version of a measure that would hand judges greater discretion in sentencing, reduce mandatory minimum sentences, and allow the lowest-risk prisoners to qualify for early release.  

The Judiciary Committee vote 15-5 to approve a version of the bill in October. But since then, the effort has slowed tremendously -- much to the White House’s dismay.  

The House, meanwhile, is taking a piecemeal approach. It likely will take up multiple bills on specific issues, which then would have to be meshed -- and differences between resolved -- with the Senate version.  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest last week sidestepped a question about whether the overhaul effort is stalled, saying only that “sometimes the legislative process on Capitol Hill doesn't work nearly as quickly as we would like or as even as quickly as one could reasonably expect.”  

Cornyn, who says he is "optimistic," said there has been some progress -- but “the action is just not in public.”  

“What we’re trying to do is sure up support among the original co-sponsors. And then to begin to reach out to other members,” Cornyn said Tuesday. “We’re having some meetings with people who previously had expressed some concerns, show them how we’ve listened and made some modifications.”  

But sources involved in the effort say the bill’s leading opponents -- Republicans Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia -- appear unmoved by many of the changes under discussion. Each has penned opinion pieces attacking the legislation’s central provisions.  

Cotton has argued sentencing laws have contributed to “a steady and dramatic drop in crime.” He called the Judiciary panel’s bill “badly misguided,” in a Feb. 9 floor speech and warned, if it passed, the bill would amount to “launching a massive social experiment in criminal leniency without knowing the full consequences.”  

The divide could doom what, for Obama, is a missing piece of his legacy. McConnell could choose against putting the bill on the floor to avoid a Republican-on-Republican fight -- and prevent Obama and his Democratic colleagues from securing campaign-trail fodder.  

The issue is of great importance to Obama, who last November said: “A lot of time, that [criminal] record disqualifies you from fully participating in our society. Even if you’ve paid your debt to society. That is bad not only for the individual, it’s bad for the economy.”  

“We’ve got to make sure that Americans who have paid their debt to society receive a second chance,” he added.  

Ironically, a president who has clashed with Republican lawmakers could see a final-year priority dashed due to an internal GOP disagreement despite the support of several of that party’s leaders, including Cornyn and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisc.  

But the legislation’s GOP authors have yet to give up.  

They are trying to bring in outside groups to rejuvenate momentum lost in recent months, Cornyn said, “to demonstrate that there’s a broad coalition of people in law enforcement and civil libertarians who agree that this makes sense.”  

Cornyn would like to get a final bill to the floor “hopefully sometime before November.”  

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on this week said both parties stand to benefit by sending the president a bill before voters head to the polls in November.  

“I think it’s in the interest of everybody to get something like criminal justice done,” McCain said. “But like a lot of these issues, the devil is in the details.”  

Niels Lesniewski, Bridget Bowman and Todd Ruger contributed to this report. Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or Android.