In a surprise end-of-the-year move, the Senate late Tuesday passed a sweeping and bipartisan rewrite of the nation’s criminal code with 87 votes in favor of the most ambitious changes in a generation.
Despite the headline-grabbing action, skeptics warned that there are still plenty of ways this can be derailed, especially as Congress is trying to pass a basic measure to keep the government’s doors open before a Friday deadline. The House still needs to accept changes made by the Senate, and President Donald Trump will need to sign it.
But, at least for the moment late Tuesday, a bill that would help low-risk offenders caught up in a sentencing matrix of mandatory minimums seems headed to becoming a law.
Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately tweeted that he looked forward to helping send the bill to the President for his signature. According to one GOP aide, the House would begin considering the bill on the floor Thursday, although the schedule is fluid. Earlier this year, the House passed a version of this law by a bipartisan 360-59 vote.
And, at the White House, officials said Trump was on-board with a topic championed by West Wing senior adviser Jared Kushner. “I look forward to signing this into law!” the President tweeted in a sign that, maybe, this would be an easy win for advocates of criminal justice reform.
Critics on both sides of the aisle seemed to temper their criticism of the bill for the moment. As passed, the legislation falls short of the ambitious goals outlined for both parties and still leaves behind thousands of inmates. The bill does not address state or local laws, meaning tens of thousands of inmates would not benefit from the changes made at the federal levels. Even so, Congress’ internal think tank estimated that some 53,000 inmates would be affected over the next 10 years out of a federal population of 181,000.
“We’re not just talking about money,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who is in his final weeks as the No. 2 member of his party in the Senate. “We’re talking about human potential. We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities, and we’re investing tax dollars into a system that helps produce stronger citizens.”
Officially called The First Steps Act, the measure provides anti-recidivism programing for those currently incarcerated, job training and rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners. It also provides an early-release provision for non-violent offenders and removes a disparity between powder cocaine and crack, a distinction that is widely seen as racially motivated.
Still, there are landmines ahead. For instance, if Congress votes to aid convicts but not to fund border security, conservative critics will pounce. And liberal groups, who sought more from this measure, will criticize the effort for not doing more to address sentencing laws they see as racist. With many departing members counting their time in Washington in hours and not weeks, the tenuous agreement is largely seen as in peril at best. On top of all of this, many of the lawmakers casting votes were shown the door in November’s elections, a typical criticism of such lame-duck sessions.
These worries did little to mute the enthusiasm seen on the Senate floor Tuesday night. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was ending his turn as Judiciary Committee chairman on a high note, sporting a red sweater as the vote proceeded. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was seen enthusiastically shaking hands with and hugging Republican colleagues. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was personally lukewarm at best on the proposal, cracked a smile as he voted for the measure. Earlier, he was coy about whether he would vote in favor of the measure.
Addressing the criminal justice system has become an unlikely bipartisan meeting of interests. Conservatives see the ballooning federal prison population as an unacceptable cost. Liberals see it as the manifestation of social and racial injustice. Groups with divergent ideological views, such as the conservative network of organizations funded by Charles Koch and the liberal Centers for American Progress, found common ground on this topic.
McConnell agreed to a series of changes in recent days but rejected others. On the floor late Tuesday, lawmakers rejected a series of last-minute additions that were seen as ways to derail the whole package. Their chief authors, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, watched as the so-called poison-pill amendments were rejected.
If the vote late Tuesday was a sign, it appears the coming two years in Washington under a divided government might not be a complete logjam. McConnell relented to allow a vote and, at least for now, progressive lawmakers did not allow themselves to be derailed in pursuit of the perfect at the cost of the good. Republicans dropped their tough-on-crime rhetoric and Democrats dropped their social-justice arguments. And, at least on Twitter, Trump seemed to break with his all-or-nothing approach to criminals in order to notch a win.
With reporting by Alana Abramson in Washington
Correction, Dec. 19:
The original version of this story misstated the day the bill passed. It was Tuesday, not Wednesday.