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McConnell resists pressure to move on criminal justice overhaul, angering some in GOP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is shown in the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 13, 2018. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

WASHINGTON - Republican supporters of legislation overhauling prison sentencing rules have a message for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: It's now or, most likely, never.

McConnell, without ever taking a public position on the bill, has told President Donald Trump and his colleagues that there simply is not enough time to take up the complex issue. Not when lawmakers have to clear a year-end bill funding a large chunk of the federal government, pass a new farm bill and try to confirm more executive and judicial branch nominees.

But supporters of the First Step Act - which reduces some mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes and tries to reduce the risk of recidivism - view any delay as the near certain death of the bill.

These Republicans warn the wait-till-next-year attitude would break apart their narrowly threaded bipartisan coalition. Democrats will take over the House on Jan. 3 and will understandably demand new concessions that would likely cause Republicans to back away from the deal.

"I think the terrain changes drastically next year so you have to find a way to get it done this year," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a prominent supporter of the bill. "I think the Democrats will want to add things on, that will probably be poisoning pills to Republicans."

Democrats have said the best bet is to cut the deal now, especially since it is so rare that large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate support something so significant - along with Trump.

"You seize the moment. Seize the moment," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the lead Democratic negotiator, said Tuesday at a Washington Post Live event on criminal justice laws.

The biggest dispute right now is basic math.

McConnell said that a majority of his Senate GOP colleagues either oppose the legislation or have not taken a position. He called it "extremely divisive" for Senate Republicans.

"I have got this much time," he said Monday at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington, holding his hands a couple of inches apart to illustrate the narrow window.

He cited several days of memorial events after the death of George H.W. Bush for eating up more time. "The question is," McConnell said, "can you shoehorn something that's extremely controversial into the remaining time?"

But some Republicans said McConnell is low balling support for the legislation and creating his own unofficial rule that the bill needs a supermajority of GOP support.

Scott said that supporters need at least 30 of the 51 Republicans to force McConnnell's hand. "At some point, we'll hit the tipping point where we believe the leader will be willing to put it on the calendar," he said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has worked with Durbin for years on the bill, said he already has a majority of Republicans ready to vote yes. "I have personally counted 26 Republicans, 26 Republicans who have said, 'I will vote for this bill,' if you put it on the floor right now," he said at the Post Live event.

And Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the departing chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a supporter of the bill, is upset his heavy lift on judicial nominations is not being rewarded with a floor vote on the criminal justice proposal. Grassley wants passage of his highest priority but McConnell still prioritizes the confirmation of even more judges.

"I've delivered pretty well, more judges than any previous president has gotten in their first two years. Two new Supreme Court justices. We've worked together on that so maybe I should have some consideration for that," Grassley told The Post's Robert Costa.

Grassley believes that he could almost get 30 GOP votes for the bill. Coupled with an estimated 45 or more Democratic votes, the legislation sits on the cusp of almost 80 votes.

All this comes as McConnell, 76, pivots toward a 2020 re-election campaign in which, given the sad state of the Kentucky Democratic Party, his most difficult challenge could be a GOP primary challenge from the right.

And the most strident conservatives are split on the issue. On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ended his wavering and came out in support of his good friend Lee. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has led the public opposition, right down to engaging in personal fights with Lee on social media.

Yes, many evangelical Christian leaders have locked arms with the conservative Koch brothers and Democratic 2020 presidential contenders like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, but no one is certain where the hardcore voters in Republican primaries will land on this issue.

Trump is publicly supportive, with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the most prominent West Wing voice backing the plan. Kushner flew with Trump on Friday to a Missouri rally ostensibly to stump for the First Step Act and en route back to Washington the president again tweeted his support for the plan.

But there's also the lingering feeling that Trump has not put his full weight into the issue. At Friday's rally, he devoted much more time to his demands for a border wall than he did to the criminal justice overhaul.

Faced with that uncertainty, McConnell appears to have decided to just cite procedural concerns about a lack of time.

"This is a one-week to 10-day bill and I've got two weeks," McConnell said at the Wall Street Journal event, suggesting "it would pass next year" if they wait.

In fact, Grassley's committee approved the legislation in February and there has been ample time to put the legislation on the floor.

The delay infuriates Grassley. He wants the Senate to stop processing presidential nominations, which can resume next month without any impact from Democrats taking over the House.

Push this legislation across the finish line now, Grassley said, or else it may never happen.

"If this bill doesn't get done now and we work with the Democrat House next year, there's going to be a bill that fewer Republicans will support, fewer chances of getting it done," Grassley said. "So we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to accomplish something."

This article was written by Paul Kane, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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