President Donald Trump on Friday did little to help resolve lawmakers’ standoff over differing House and Senate prison overhaul bills, opting against using his bully pulpit to pressure either side.
Instead, Trump gave both sides leverage when he said his administration “strongly supports these efforts,” referring to each chambers’ bill. The remark was something of a shift for the president. Previously, his administration has voiced support for a measure awaiting House floor action but been cooler to a Senate version that includes proposed sentencing changes.
“I urge the House and Senate to get together [and] work out their differences,” Trump said.
He then assured lawmakers that he would support whatever compromise overhaul legislation they agree on and can get through both chambers.
“Get a bill to my desk and I will sign it,” Trump declared.
But should members believe him?
Trump on Jan. 9 told this to a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers during another White House event about immigration overhaul legislation: “You guys are going to have to come up with a solution [for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program]. And I’m going to sign that solution.”
In the room, he assured that bipartisan group he would “take the heat” if they caught flack for the contents of a bipartisan immigration bill. But in reality, after a group of Republican and Democratic senators introduced exactly that kind of bill, the president and his team helped sink it.
The House Judiciary Committee earlier this month approved a bill that would overhaul the prison system and reduce recidivism rates. Its proponents hope it could clear the full chamber by early June.
“If we get it on suspension, we might be able to do it before Memorial Day,” said Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins, one of its authors, referring to a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage.
But that measure appears headed nowhere in the Senate, where Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, favors a broader approach that would include changes to mandatory minimum sentences. He recently told CQ, Roll Call’s sister publication, that he does not want Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring up the House measure should it pass that chamber. But the GOP leader also has signaled no intention to advance a broad measure Grassley’s panel has already approved.
Trump’s comments Friday suggest he wants McConnell to change his mind.
“It will be strong. It will be good,” he said of a compromise bill. “You’ll have something that’ll make you very proud. We want the finest prison reform that you can have anywhere.”
The president also, as he often does no matter an event’s subject, touted the performance of the U.S. economy under his watch. He noted financial markets have climbed since he was sworn in, and predicted those indexes will gain even more value after his administration completes several trade deals. Experts, however, warn the economic picture painted by White House officials is too rosy; some point to still-wide inequality levels and stagnant wages as causes for concern.
Trump linked the prison overhaul push to the health of the economy, saying “the greatest thing I can do … is create a good work environment. Jobs are so important, a great economy is so important.”
Also key to ensuring former inmates can thrive on the outside, according to Trump: Better trade deals with countries like China. He announced he was going next to the second meeting with the Chinese trade delegation in as many days at the White House. Those talks appear stalled as the two economic powerhouses attempt to resolve issues stemming from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and proposed counter-Chinese tariffs that experts say would hit big parts of Trump’s domestic political base hard.
“That’s not good for people getting out of prison,” he said of existing U.S. trade deals. “They take our jobs, they take our money. Not a good combination.”
Lindsey McPherson and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.