Senate Will Vote on FIRST STEP

McConnell promises tally on bill before end of year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell / Getty Images
• December 11, 2018 2:20 pm


The Senate will vote on the White House's criminal justice reform proposal before recessing for the end of its term, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday.

"At the request of the president, and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month. I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week," McConnell said on Tuesday.

McConnell's announcement garnered praises from advocates of criminal justice reform from the left and right.

"We applaud Leader McConnell for committing to bring the First Step Act to the Senate floor for a vote. This criminal justice reform bill has broad bipartisan backing, boasting the support of Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham. President Trump has said that he ‘looks very much forward to signing' the First Step Act. Once again, we call on Congress to pass the First Step Act before the end of the year," said Jason Pye, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for FreedomWorks.

This promise, if followed through on, will break weeks of deadlock as McConnell has allowed the FIRST STEP Act to come to the floor. Over that time, the bill has acquired numerous public backers, from the National Governor's Association to 21st Century Fox.

What it did not have was the support of a majority of the Senate's Republicans, who behind closed doors raised concerns about the potential public safety implications of the bill. Opponents, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), seemed for a time to have scuttled the bill given McConnell's skittishness about allowing a floor vote on a bill that would likely pass without a majority of his caucus's assent.

Since these initial negotiations, however, a number of Republicans have worked to address their concerns with the bills, signing on to an as-of-yet unreleased amended version of the proposal. Central to the modifications are the bill's system by which prisoners can earn "time credits" towards early supervised release in exchange for participation in recidivism-reduction training.

The bill excludes a number of offenders from collecting these credits, but not enough in the view of some opponents.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) announced last Friday that he had reached an accord with the White House to add an amendment precluding violent offenders from receiving time credits. Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.) signed on Tuesday after securing the same promise and an unspecified narrowing of the bill's broad "safety valve" measure for reducing certain mandatory minimums

Now, with more than 30 co-sponsors, the bill looks likely to pass. But some parties remain unhappy. Cotton noted that he was happy with the changes made by Cruz and Perdue, but contended in a statement that they did not go far enough.

"For months I've said the First Step Act allows violent felons and sex offenders to be released early. I'm pleased the drafters have finally acknowledged that reality and made changes to address some of the specific issues I pointed out. Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals," Cotton said. "I look forward to debating this bill on the Senate floor and introducing amendments to address its many remaining threats to public safety."

According to Cotton's office, the latest version of the bill still does not exclude from time credits offenders charged with at least 35 violent crimes, including bank robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault against a child, and carjacking with intent to cause death.

Law enforcement also remains a hold-out, most prominently the National Sheriffs' Association. That group outlined its concerns about the bill in a letter last month, emphasizing that it also believed a number of offenders needed to be excluded from the time credit system.

"We understand Sen. Grassley and Sen. Durbin are attempting to make the public safety changes that National Sheriffs' Association recommended," the National Sheriffs' Association told the Washington Post Monday, "[but] we have not seen language that addresses all the concerns of America's sheriffs."