McConnell Tells Trump a Criminal Justice Bill Is Not Likely This Year

WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell told President Trump in a private meeting on Thursday that there is not likely to be enough time to bring a bipartisan criminal justice bill up for a vote this year, regardless of the support it has in the Senate and the White House, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. McConnell, who as majority leader controls the Senate floor, delivered the news in a previously scheduled meeting at the White House convened to discuss the chamber’s legislative agenda for the remaining weeks of the term.

Lawmakers from both parties have been working furiously to build support for the compromise legislation that would begin to reverse some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s that incarcerated African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders.

Mr. Trump enthusiastically endorsed the proposal this week, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, pledged to move it across the finish line in the House “this term.” But Mr. McConnell’s conclusion could all but foreclose the possibility that Congress will vote on the bill this year.

Publicly, Mr. McConnell has avoided putting his thumb on the scale for or against the legislation. He told reporters on Wednesday that if proponents secured the support of at least 60 senators, he would be willing to push the bill forward, but cautioned that he would have to “see how it stacks up against our other priorities going into the end of our session.”

Congress must also come to an agreement on how to fund a handful of federal departments, including Homeland Security, and resolve an impasse over a major farm bill, among other smaller issues.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, reiterated those points in a statement on Friday, adding, “The support for, and length of time needed to move the new bill is not knowable at this moment.”

But Mr. McConnell told the president that the bill would most likely eat up about 10 days on the Senate floor — time that he did not have between now and the scheduled end of the legislative session on Dec. 14, according to the people familiar with the remarks, who were granted anonymity to describe the private meeting. They were not connected to Mr. McConnell.

If the bill had enough support, Mr. McConnell said, he would be willing to bring it up next year, after the new Congress is seated.

Supporters of the legislation, which includes anti-recidivism programs, and the expansion of early release credits and sentencing changes, worry that Mr. McConnell is being a less-than-neutral arbiter. They believe that if consideration slips into January, when Democrats who favor more expansive sentencing changes take control of the House, the current compromise could collapse.

Like earlier efforts, the bill counts an unorthodox array of backers, including liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union; FreedomWorks, an influential conservative advocacy group; and the Fraternal Order of Police. But pockets of conservative opposition run deep, dividing Republicans in the Senate — a dynamic Mr. McConnell typically prefers to avoid.

The divisions were on display on Thursday.

At the Senate Republicans’ weekly caucus luncheon at the Capitol, Mr. McConnell acknowledged that the changes had influential supporters who had worked hard on the issue, but also invited two of its chief critics, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, to deliver remarks, two Republican congressional officials said.

Mr. Cotton, who has been perhaps the loudest critic of the bill’s sentencing changes in the Senate, urged colleagues to slow down the process, saying that the bill’s impact and implications were too expensive to push through without hearings, according to another official familiar with his remarks. He stressed opposition by some law enforcement groups and warned that a draft version of the bill he had seen would lead to the immediate release of thousands of felons onto the streets.

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who helped write the legislation, pushed back against Mr. Cotton’s characterization. So did Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and led the compromise effort. Mr. Grassley said that Mr. Cotton’s remarks made him sound like “some sort of pinko commie.”

Mr. Cotton’s office also circulated a letter from groups representing elected sheriffs raising objections to the bill. Without changes, it said, the “legislation creates a high-risk path for dangerous criminals with gun crime histories to early release from prison.” Mr. Cotton also wrote an op-ed in USA Today in which he called the legislation “a misguided effort to let serious felons out of prison.”

The legislation’s advocates caught a break last week when Mr. Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who had been one of the bill’s most vocal opponents within the administration and before that as a senator from Alabama.

Mr. Sessions’s temporary replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, appears unlikely to exercise similar influence on the issue. In a recent phone call, Mr. Whitaker told Mr. Grassley that he would support the legislation backed by the president, according to George Hartmann, a spokesman for Mr. Grassley.

The legislation, the First Step Act, builds on a prison overhaul bill passed overwhelmingly by the House this year, adding four additional changes to federal sentencing laws. It combines new funding for anti-recidivism programs meant to better prepare inmates to re-enter society and the expansion of early-release credits for prisoners, and reduces some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, among other changes.

Though its impact would be limited to federal prisons and offenses — not state ones — experts believe the legislation could shape the experiences of tens of thousands of current inmates and future offenders.

It would also prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates and the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in almost all cases.

Mr. Trump offered his support on Wednesday flanked by Republican lawmakers, law enforcement officials and outside advocates. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Senators formally introduced the bill on Thursday and at the same time announced the support of five Democrats and five Republicans in addition to Mr. Grassley and Mr. Durbin. They said there would be many more in the coming days, and the vocal support voiced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a liberal Democrat who favored a more expansive bill, signaled that the proponents could likely count on most Democrats for support.

Senate supporters were also coordinating closely with proponents from both parties in the House.

The delay in bringing up the legislation described to Mr. Trump is not the first time that proponents of changes in the sentencing and prison systems have bumped up against Mr. McConnell. A similar coalition of lawmakers and outside groups made a higher-profile and more expansive attempt to overhaul the criminal justice system during the final years of the Obama administration, and had support from Mr. Ryan and other Republicans.

But Mr. McConnell did not allow a vote on the bill before the 2016 elections, worried about sowing divisions among Republicans.

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