WASHINGTON — Nebraska and Iowa senators find themselves on opposite sides of a criminal justice bill that has deeply divided Senate Republicans, as supporters seek to drag the measure across the finish line just before this Congress adjourns.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Iowa Republicans and staunch backers of the legislation, are hoping to see it on President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of the year.
“This landmark bill is an opportunity to insert fairness into prison sentencing and reduce recidivism by helping low-risk inmates prepare to successfully rejoin society through professional development and hard work training programs,” Ernst told reporters Friday.
Supporters are worried about starting over in a new Congress, so they want to see it move now. Trump has endorsed the measure.
But the clock is ticking and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has suggested that a new farm bill and legislation to fund the government will receive priority in the limited time left to the 115th Congress.
Opponents are keeping up the pressure, saying the legislation would endanger public safety. Both of Nebraska’s Republican senators are opposed to the bill in its current form.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voted against the proposal when it came up in committee. Sasse said at the time that it would “likely result in a large number of violent criminals returning to the street.”
Sen. Deb Fischer said recently that Grassley created a split among his colleagues by combining provisions aimed at how prisons are run with a sentencing overhaul.
She cited concerns that Nebraska sheriffs have expressed to her about the proposal.
“Whether it’s with guns and drugs, lessening those sentences, making it easier for people to get out,” Fischer said. “There’s a number of those throughout the bill.”
Supporters reject the idea that it would instantly allow violent offenders to leave prison. Rather, they say, the bill includes safeguards under which each defendant’s case would be evaluated to determine whether he poses a threat to the public.
“If it is a weapons charge, if it is a violent crime, certainly they should be excluded from an early release program,” Ernst said. “But if it is a very simple crime, someone does not have a history of criminal behavior, the sentencing should reflect that.”
The bill would give judges options to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and eliminate some mandatory sentences. It also aims to overhaul the prison infrastructure in order to reduce recidivism.
Ernst said it’s important to ensure that released inmates don’t break the law again because they can’t support their families.
“We want to make sure that they have the skills necessary to go out into a job and become a productive citizen,” Ernst said.
But opponents say the safeguards simply aren’t robust enough. They point in particular to language related to gun crimes and fentanyl offenses as flawed. And they’ve suggested that some sex offenders could end up being released early.
The opposition of the national sheriffs group has been key. Ernst noted that other law enforcement groups have backed it.
She said proponents have challenged the sheriffs to work with them on compromise language in an effort to rally more GOP support for the bill.
“What we do need to ensure is that people with violent criminal histories aren’t receiving early sentencing release,” Ernst said.
One concern, however, is that making changes to take a harder line could cause the bill to lose support among some Democrats.
The legislation could possibly be attached to the collection of spending bills keeping the government funded. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has led opposition to the bill, attacked that idea.
“If the jailbreak bill gets stuck in the spending bill, everyone bring your stockings to the Senate, because we’ll be there on Christmas!” Cotton wrote on Twitter. “Only thing worse than early release from prison of thousands of serious, violent, & repeat felons is to do that in a spending bill with no debate or amendments, forcing senators to either shut down government or let felons out of prison.”
Grassley has insisted that the measure has more than enough votes to pass if McConnell would only put it on the floor.
The longtime Iowa senator expressed frustration with McConnell’s refusal, given his own work as chair of the Judiciary Committee, to push through Trump judicial nominees at a record pace. McConnell has made a priority of confirming those judges.
“What’s so irritating about this is, first of all, he and I have been hand-in-glove working to get the judiciary vacancies filled and get it filled with strict constructionists,” Grassley said. “I think I ought to have … some ‘consideration’ is the word I should use, for delivering on tough Supreme Court nominees and a lot of tough circuit court nominees and maybe even once in a while you get a tough district court nominee.”