Time Is Running Out For The Senate To Finally Do Something About Sentencing Reform

The bipartisan legislation, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, is waiting to be brought up for a vote.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (third from left) is irritated Senate Republicans have not brought up criminal justice reform legislation for a vote.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (third from left) is irritated Senate Republicans have not brought up criminal justice reform legislation for a vote.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Senators pushing for bipartisan criminal justice reform are running out of time to pass the legislation through both chambers before the election year’s long summer recess begins.

If lawmakers don’t find a way to move the bill before they leave in July, the chances of it passing this year dwindle significantly. The legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and give judges greater discretion when issuing sentences for low-level drug crimes.

Still, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who helped author the Senate package, said Tuesday that he and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are waiting for the House to move first. Cornyn wouldn’t say whether the two lawmakers had talked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who dictates what comes to the floor, about the latest version of the bill.

“I think right now the best prospects for us are for the House to start,” Cornyn said, adding that he and Grassley spoke to House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) two weeks ago about the matter. Goodlatte is hoping his criminal justice package will come to the floor and pass in June, Cornyn said.

“That I think will give us some momentum over here,” he said.

So far, the House Judiciary Committee has pushed through a slew of criminal justice bills, but no floor time has been arranged by Republican leaders for the package despite the interest they have expressed in passing it. When asked about the bill's prospects, Goodlatte referred HuffPost to his press office, which didn't immediately respond.

Jessica Collins, a spokesperson for the House Judiciary Committee, didn't comment on the June timeframe, but said the committee is still pushing forward on its criminal justice reform package.

"The committee still plans to address a few remaining issues: policing strategies, improved criminal procedures, and juvenile justice," Collins said.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), co-author of the criminal justice reform bill, voiced irritation Tuesday with Cornyn and Grassley for not pushing McConnell harder to bring the bill up for a vote.

“I’m very concerned, I want to talk to both of them today to find out what they’ve done,” Durbin said. “We’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do: passed it out of committee 15-5, made significant changes in the bill, drew additional Republican co-sponsors, and still no signal from Sen. McConnell that he would even consider calling it to the floor.”

Durbin didn’t like the idea of the upper chamber waiting for the House to move first, saying the Senate is waiting on the House on too many bills.

In an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this month, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another author of the text, said he was growing frustrated with the lack of urgency. If Congress waits until after summer recess, Booker said, passing the bill, which he called "the first reversal of mass incarceration in the federal level" in his lifetime, would be extremely difficult.

The Senate is scheduled to adjourn July 15 and reconvene in September, at which point it is scheduled to be in session just 43 days through the end of the year.

Late last month, proponents of the bill unveiled changes to the text, strengthening language applying to violent offenders to win over more Republicans and convince McConnell it has enough votes for passage. But after finalizing the latest revisions and announcing the new co-sponsors, talk of votes on the package has all but stopped in the Senate -- an indication that McConnell hasn't warmed to the idea.

“There comes a point where we’re ready to go, and I don’t know why we’d be waiting on the House at this point,” Durbin said.

This story has been updated to include comment from Collins.

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