In his State of the Union address two weeks ago, President Obama acknowledged that “expectations for what we will achieve this year are low,” but he hopes the White House and the Republican Congress “can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.” The comment generated some applause in the chamber.
But not everyone clapped.
Real, meaningful progress on criminal justice reform offers promise – it’s one of the few issues supported by the president, GOP leaders, and even the Koch brothers – and in October, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a compromise package. As of this morning, the “Criminal Justice Reform and Corrections Act,” has already picked up 28 co-sponsors, 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
That kind of balance is uncommon on major issues – it helped the agreement clear the Senate Judiciary Committee easily – which is why it’s all the more important that some far-right senators are positioned to kill the legislation. Politico reported yesterday:
Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish upstart who’s already made waves on the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system – hoping to torpedo one of the few pieces of major legislation that could pass Congress in President Barack Obama’s final year. […]“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”
Cotton is joined in this campaign by Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). Politico’s piece added that there are “pockets” of opposition within the GOP that will resist “anything that might erode its tough-on-crime reputation.”
In other words, a worthwhile, bipartisan agreement, backed by the Koch brothers, may be scrapped because some far-right senators are worried about the Republican Party’s branding.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is hardly a moderate, insists Cotton’s talking points are “not true,” and points to support for the bill from prominent GOP law-enforcement figures from the Bush/Cheney era, including former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey and former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who have thrown their support behind the bill.
On the flip side, far-right opponents have convinced former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Rudy Giuliani to tell GOP senators the bill would pose “significant risks to public safety.”
There’s a real possibility that the votes would exist to pass the bill anyway, despite Cotton and his faction, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is unlikely to move forward on a high-profile bill that’s dividing his conference, and the more right-wing members balk, the less likely it is the GOP-led House will approve the bipartisan compromise.
Congress hasn’t approved a major reform package since the 2010 midterms. Odds are, that streak will continue through the remainder of this Congress.