Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on Monday singled out Sen. Mitch McConnell as the one person who can make a vote on the criminal justice reform bill happen and called for public pressure on the majority leader.
Paul, speaking at the Louisville Urban League, said McConnell, the state’s senior senator, is the one person who “has the power” to allow a vote on a criminal justice reform bill and said Louisville residents should call his office and say, “Please let us have this vote.”
“I will tell you that we need the help of one person. The one person who had the power to allow this vote — and I’m not saying he’s stopping it — but there is one person. He’s from Louisville, he’s fairly well known and he has the power to allow or disallow this vote,” Paul said, referring to McConnell.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t vote. So I would say if you’re in Louisville, call and say, ‘Senator McConnell, all we want is a vote’. It will pass overwhelmingly.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D. KY-03) has also joined Paul’s call to action to put pressure on McConnell. Now let me be clear, I don’t like or trust Rand Paul to do the right thing because he’s compromised too much on his Libertarian principals to step in line with McConnell and his party. But because there are several Republicans that are on board with the First Step Act, I can believe Paul’s sincerity on this issue. Even Trump is on board with the First Step Act. Mother Jones has a breakdown on the First Step Act:
The First Step Act, co-sponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate, would be the first major criminal justice bill to pass Congress in about eight years. In May, the House overwhelmingly approved a different version of the bill that only focused on prison reform; the legislation now under consideration by the upper chamber also includes sentencing reform, a concession that has brought more Democrats on board with the proposal.
Among its biggest impacts, the First Step Act would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced huge disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentences; this change could allow roughly 2,600 prisoners locked up for crack cocaine to petition for shorter punishments, a vast majority of them people of color. The bill would also curb some mandatory minimum sentences, including for certain violent crimes and drug charges. The federal three-strikes policy that currently triggers a life sentence would instead lead to a 25-year sentence, for example. And the bill would give federal judges more discretion not to hand down mandatory minimums to people with limited criminal histories, a provision that could help about 2,000 people annually, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group that supports the measure.
In federal prisons, the First Step Act would encourage more inmates to participate in job training programs, and it would allow some prisoners who participate in rehabilitative programs to spend more of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. It would also make more elderly and sick inmates eligible for compassionate release, and clarify that federal inmates can earn more time off their sentences each year for good behavior.
Still, the legislation is not a perfect fix, and backers on both sides of the aisle have made compromises. Some Democrats, for example, were disappointed that the new curbs on mandatory minimum sentences would not apply retroactively, while some Republicans were wary of sentencing reform at all. But supporters argue that, like its name implies, the measure is a first step that could pave the way for more reforms later. “It was a hard decision to endorse it, but in the end I think it’s progress,” says Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that withheld support until sentencing reforms were added recently. “This kind of perfect storm that’s happening right now, with the focus of the president, the focus of leadership of both sides of Congress and the press—this kind of momentum and interest is what makes legislation become law, and I can’t imagine we’ll be in a moment like this anytime soon.”
But of course, this asshole had to come along and ruin everything:
With a blessing from Donald Trump ― a politician so “tough on crime” he still thinks the Central Park Five are guilty ― Congress could pass a bill before the end of the year to make the criminal justice system a little less harsh and a little less racist.
There’s just one problem: Senator Tom Cotton.
“Thousands of people will be released within weeks or months of a bill like this passing,” the Arkansas Republican told HuffPost. “I think it’s a danger to public safety and not sound policy.”
The bill is called The First Step Act. It aims to reduce recidivism and would shorten some prison sentences. Both Republicans and Democrats support the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union likes it, and so does FreedomWorks, the conservative lobbying group associated with the Tea Party movement.
But Cotton is doing everything he can to sour Republicans on the legislation. He railed against the bill during a lively Tuesday lunch meeting with his Republican colleagues, warning them they would be blamed if any recently released prisoner commits a new crime.
“He was the guy who was most sharply against the bill,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told HuffPost. “He’s saying, ‘Someone’s going to get out; we’re all going to lose our seats’.”
McConnell is trying to avoid party infighting over the First Step Act by claiming that he would have the votes in 2019 to pass the bill. But criminal justice reform advocates and even McConnell’s GOP advocates know that’s bull shit:
“I’ve got this much time,” McConnell said this week at a Wall Street Journalevent, holding his hands close together. He said such a bill requires a week or ten days to consider, while there are only two weeks left before the planned holiday recess and budget bills that must be passed before then; advocates argue that it would only take a few days, with a cloture vote capping debate at 30 hours. McConnell acknowledged support on both sides of the aisle but called the legislation “extremely divisive inside the Senate Republican conference,” with more members undecided or opposed than in favor.
“That’s his calling card, protecting his conference,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and a leading reform advocate who spent more than a year in federal prison for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. While past majority leaders like Lyndon Johnson might have strong-armed their members, McConnell waits for near-unanimity among Senate Republicans. “I think he’s not just looking for 60 votes,” said Brett Tolman, the former top federal prosecutor in Utah who also worked as a GOP Senate staffer and now advocates for criminal-justice reform. “He’s looking for a majority of Republicans.” That seemed more likely as Senator Ted Cruz, a former skeptic of the bill, came out in favor of it Friday afternoon after the sponsors accepted his minor amendments; his support could lead more conservative Republicans to join him.
Above all, Ring said in an interview last week, McConnell wants to avoid GOP infighting and protect his senators in their reelection fights. There’s the specter of anti-reform senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas calling other Republicans “soft on crime,” despite endorsements from Trump and law-enforcement organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police. Cotton charges that if the bill becomes law, “thousands of federal offenders, including violent felons and sex offenders, will be released earlier than they would be under current law.” Supporters say that Cotton is misleading the public by ignoring the required risk assessment that would screen out high-risk inmates, even if the law does not exclude their crimes specifically.
Then there’s the possibility of GOP primary challengers attacking incumbents. Lukewarm senators might be asking McConnell to spare them the vote, Ring said. “For every Republican senator who’s saying, ‘I have problems with this,’ my sense is that there’s another one saying to McConnell, ‘I’d rather not have to vote on this.’”
There’s also the question of McConnell’s personal opinion. “He doesn’t like the bill,” the GOP donor and White House ally Doug Deason told the Post. He compared the majority leader to the hard-line former attorney general: “He’s a Jeff Sessions–style, lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy.” However, Tolman said that when he met with McConnell, the senator indicated he was “not really putting his finger on the scale one way or another.”
If not this year, how about in 2019?
“I’m pretty confident, given the broad support that it has, that it would pass next year,” McConnell predicted at the Wall Street Journal event. Supporters disagree. “This really does need to get done this year,” Senator Mike Lee, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Utah who backs the reforms, told TheJournal last month. “Saying that we’ll do it next year is tantamount to saying this just isn’t going to get done.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday there could be a “path” to linking a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill to year-end spending bill talks if more Republicans come on board.
“I think we still have a window,” Cornyn told reporters when asked about the chances of passing the legislation this month.
The No. 2 Senate Republican added that the time to get a bill to President Trump’s desk this year is “fleeting,” but he’s involved in talks about how to get more support from the Republican conference.
“I could see a way where this gets put on a year-end spending bill, but … we’ve still got to do some work,” Cornyn added.
The measure would take the House-passed prison reform bill and attach four provisions.
But how much support the Senate bill has within the chamber’s Republican conference is a point of contention.
Cornyn reiterated Monday that more than half of the 51-member conference is undecided or opposed to the bill. Supporters, meanwhile, say that at least half of the conference and as many as 30 Republican senators are ready to vote for it.
Supporters are increasingly focusing their frustration on Cornyn accusing him of whipping the criminal justice bill differently and giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “bad advice” about the support the bill has within the conference.
It’s important to keep up the pressure on McConnell and his GOP colleagues. If you live in a state with Republicans Senators, click here to contact them and tell them to support the First Step Act.
And if you live in Kentucky, reach out to any and all of McConnell’s offices and demand he bring the First Step Act up for a vote:
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-2541
Fax: (202) 224-2499
100 Fountain Avenue
Paducah, KY 42001
Phone: (270) 442-4554
241 E. Main Street, Rm. 102
Bowling Green, KY 42101
Phone: (270) 781-1673
300 S. Main Street
London, KY 40741
Phone: (606) 864-2026
1885 Dixie Highway
Fort Wright, KY 41011
Phone: (859) 578-0188
771 Corporate Drive
Lexington, KY 40503
Phone: (859) 224-8286
601 W. Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Phone: (502) 582-6304