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Senate easily advances criminal justice reform bill, ignores Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015.

A few weeks ago, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) talked to Bloomberg News' Steven Dennis, and as the longtime Capitol Hill reporter put it, the far-right senator was "as certain as almost anyone I've ever seen declaring that the criminal justice overhaul would not pass."

Cotton was wrong. In fact, the fight wasn't even close.

The Senate passed a huge criminal law reform bill on Tuesday night, seizing on bipartisan support for the broadest set of changes to federal crime statutes in a generation.A rare coalition of conservatives, liberals, activists, prosecutors and defense attorneys — spanning the political spectrum -- pushed senators to pass the "First Step Act" by a final vote of 87-12.

The final roll call is online here. Note, all 12 opponents were Republicans, though most of the Senate GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), voted for it.

The House passed a similar version of the bill earlier in the year, but because of changes made in the Senate, the proposal will head back to the lower chamber for another vote. It's expected to pass before the House wraps up its work for the year, and Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

In an era in which the nation appears bitterly divided, and the search for common ground between the parties seems almost pointless, the progress on the First Step Act offers an unfamiliar sight: bipartisan cooperation on an issue of national significance.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the First Step Act is fairly modest in scope – Vox explained that it would affect only about a tenth of the nation’s prison population, targeting federal facilities exclusively – but it includes provisions that would expand eligibility in the Fair Sentencing Act, ease mandatory-minimum sentences, and increase “credit” programs that would enable some federal inmates to earn early release.

In the not-too-distant past, many politicians steered clear of initiatives like these, afraid of "weak on crime" attack ads, but the political culture surrounding criminal justice issues has evolved in recent years. Even many on the right see the "get tough" policies of the 1980s and 1990s as expensive failures, clearing the way for incremental progress.

As for why Donald “tough on crime” Trump would endorse such a package, that's a little tougher to explain. My best guess is that the president has no idea what’s in the bill, but he likes the idea of signing bipartisan legislation on an important national issue.

In fact, nearly two years into the Trump presidency, the bill signing for the First Step Act will be the first bipartisan event on national significance since before the Republican took office.

Postscript: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) pushed an amendment to the bill that would "withhold federal money from states that fail to maintain data on officer-involved shootings." The measure was rejected, offering a reminder that while the First Step Act represents progress, there's still plenty of additional work to do on this issue.