Prison reform bill has strong bipartisan support; Will a few Republicans block it?

mitch mcConnell
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to the media after a weekly Senate caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington March 17, 2015. |

A prison reform bill has strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, and the support of President Donald Trump, but a few Republicans could be blocking the measure.

"There's 80 votes for this. It's the most-important bipartisan piece of legislation in the Congress today," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

A version of the bill, the FIRST STEP Act, passed in May in the U.S. House, 360-59. The Senate version adds sentencing reform to the mix.

A number of Christian groups have backed the legislation, including the National Association of Evangelicals, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Prison Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. On Aug. 1, a group of about 20 black pastors met with Trump in the White House to encourage him to back the bill.

Despite the super-majority support in both houses, the bill may not pass this year during Congress' lame duck session.

The bill's most outspoken opponent is Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. In a Thursday USA Today op-ed, Cotton accused the legislation of being a "misguided effort to let serious felons out of prison" and of going "soft on some of the worst crimes."

Citing an unnamed senator quoted in Politico, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd noted Cotton is rumored to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Do you believe the majority leader is trying to quietly kill this bill in the lame-duck?" Todd asked Graham.

"No, not really," Graham answered. "Because Tom Cotton's had this view from day one."

Yet, by the end of Graham's answer, he urged President Trump to call McConnell to demand he bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

"And I'm urging Mitch McConnell, put this bill on the floor. If you put it on the floor, we'll get 80 votes. We'll get most Republicans and almost all Democrats. And let's do it before the end of the year. And the president's behind it. So Mr. President, pick up the phone and call the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate and say, 'We still run this place.' Bring this bill to the floor. Senator Cotton can have his say. And we'll vote him down," he said.

Todd then asked for clarification: "You believe the president is going to have to start lobbying Mitch McConnell?"

"Yes," Graham answered.

After again urging Trump to call McConnell, Graham added, "The Republicans are the problem here, not the Democrats."

The FIRST STEP Act contains a number of measures aimed at turning prisons into centers for rehabilitation, rather than simply for punishing and locking up prisoners. The sentencing reforms that were added into the Senate version would reduce sentences for some non-violent and first time drug offenders, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders. These reforms are aimed at reducing racial disparities in prison sentences.

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