Senate Sends Criminal Justice Bill to the House

Action comes after years of debate, bipartisan support

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,resisted bringing the criminal justice bill to the floor initially, but he ultimately supported it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate voted 87-12 to pass an amended criminal justice overhaul bill on Tuesday, sending a bipartisan measure that almost did not make it to the floor to what backers said was a clear and swift path to becoming law.

The bill, which was brought to the floor as an amendment to an unrelated measure, survived initial indifference from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a series of amendments from Republican opponents, and the addition of some other amendments before ultimately earning an overwhelming bipartisan final vote.

Those were the final touches after years of negotiations and changes that formed a compromise bill that took years to get to a floor vote and narrowed the scope of the legislation to garner support.

Among other provisions, the bill aims to lower the number of federal inmates through changes in some sentencing laws and through better support for prisoners returning to society so they don’t commit new crimes and return to prison.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday on the floor that the House is ready to act on the bill and President Donald Trump is ready to sign it. Grassley, who co-wrote the bill, said before the votes that an 82-12 procedural vote on the bill Monday night showed broad support across the political spectrum.

“We had to show the colleagues in Congress that we had broad support from what you might say is the extreme right to the extreme left,” Grassley said. “I don’t know whether we’ve had legislation like this before the United States Senate where you put together such a diverse group of people and organizations supporting the bill.”

The Senate shot down three amendments from Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, opponents of the bill who say it will reduce public safety. Backers considered the amendments “poison pills.” The votes were 32-67, 33-66 and 37-62, with only Republicans voting for the changes, which included provisions to further narrow which prisoners would be eligible for early release.

The Senate approved an amendment by voice vote that included language to keep violent offenders from being released early. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted on that provision, which was inadvertently left out of the bill, as well as language from Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., to clarify language about faith-based groups, according to Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.

Cotton, who had previously spoken about standing in the way of the bill, did not object to those amendments. “The bill has been years in the making. It’s the result of painstaking negotiations,” Cotton said before the votes. “We should vote on passage of the bill and move on to the Senate’s other business.”

The Senate then moved to final passage. McConnell, who resisted putting the bill on the floor for years amid a divide in the Republican caucus, voted for the bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of the bill, was not present for the votes.

Durbin called its passage “significant and historic.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who filed bills on the issue for years, called it a “huge win for America and President Trump.”

“We did it,” Lee said. “We passed real bipartisan criminal justice reform. Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, American families will be stronger and our communities will be safer.”

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