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Tense Floor Exchange Blocks Juvenile Justice Bill

Cotton blocked passage of the juvenile justice bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A tense exchange on the Senate floor presaged the blocking of bipartisan legislation to overhaul the juvenile justice system.  

"I'm trying to get accountability for this program. That's what's at stake here," Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in a private exchange while the chamber was still voting Thursday on a judicial nominee. Grassley had come to the floor with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to ask for unanimous consent to pass their bill to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.  

Among other provisions, the legislation would ask states to avoid throwing young offenders into juvenile detention centers for low-level "status" offenses such as skipping school. It would also increase Justice Department oversight of juvenile justice programs.  

Grassley spent several minutes huddled with an aide and Cotton toward the back of the chamber in an animated conversation. Finally, they broke up, with Cotton headed over to his desk to page through a notebook. Grassley went over to Whitehouse on the other side of the aisle, spoke for a few moments, and said to him, "No, we're going to go ahead."  

After a 93-0 vote to confirm Leonard Strand as an Iowa district judge, Grassley began to speak. He thanked the bill's sponsors and supporters, and detailed the changes the measure called for. Then he threw it over to Whitehouse, who was visibly irritated.  

"This was a bill that came through Judiciary without a single voice of dissent," Whitehouse began. "Indeed, it has such broad enthusiasm and support in the Judiciary Committee that we decided that we would simply hotline the bill because there seemed to be no objection to it. Hotline means you ask unanimous consent and warn people you're going to ask unanimous consent, and anybody who wants to object has a chance to come here and do so.  

"It is my understanding that there is one senator of the 100 of us who wishes to do so. And so, here we are going through that exercise," he added, gesturing toward Cotton. Whitehouse then proceeded to read a long list of Arkansas police chiefs and others from Cotton's state who supported the measure.  

Cotton was undeterred. After Whitehouse finished and Grassley asked for consent to pass the bill, Cotton objected, explaining his concerns.  

"I agree that the bill improves the way we handle juvenile offenders. ... I hope to see it passed into law. However, I would like to take more time to discuss one specific provision of the bill relating to juvenile status offenders and secure confinement," Cotton said. He said he thinks judges should have the option to place juvenile offenders in detention centers if they violate an order to take part in rehabilitation or other treatments.  

He pledged to work with the bill's sponsors, but his objection riled Grassley and Whitehouse.  

"I respect the senator from Arkansas. He's been, in the short time he been in the Senate, an outstanding leader on very important issues, and he's a good senator. And I've watched him over the period of time he's been in the Senate, and I think this is the first time I've felt he was wrong," Grassley said on the floor. "He has his rights."  

Grassley told Roll Call he wasn't sure what the next step would be, saying that while he was aware previously of some of Cotton's concerns, as far as a "member-to-member" discussion, "I've only had one conversation, which you saw on the floor."

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