Criminal justice reform bill may be final bright spot for 115th Congress

As House and Senate leaders grapple with a Friday night funding deadline for part of the federal government in a dispute with President Donald Trump over funding for his wall along the Mexican border, the Congress is poised to take a major bipartisan step forward on criminal justice reform legislation, as lawmakers struggle to wrap up their final legislative work in 2018.

Tuesday night, the Senate voted 87-12 in favor of a reform bill which would reduce sentences for some non-violent offenders, change certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, provide programs to help inmates return to society like job training and for drug abuse, along with efforts to reduce recidivism - known as the 'First Step Act.'

"We still have work to do, but this bill balances the need to keep our communities safe while providing an opportunity for prisoners to earn a second chance," said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).

"Tonight’s Senate vote represents hope for families who want to see our criminal justice system prioritize public safety and rehabilitation," said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), a main sponsor of the plan in the House, which could vote on the bill as soon as Thursday.

You can read the 148 page "First Step Act" here.

While lawmakers joined for bipartisan work on that plan, there were few other major legislative items that seemed to be ready to magically appear under the Capitol Christmas Tree, as Republicans and Democrats struggled to avoid a funding lapse for part of the federal government on Friday night.

"I think there's certainly bipartisan support for avoiding a government shutdown," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as GOP Senators made very clear in the halls that they were not thrilled with the President's vow from last week to shutdown the government in order to get $5 billion in money for his border wall.

"He can speak for himself, but I think a government shutdown is not a good option," McConnell told reporters, sending a clear signal to the White House.

As the House returned to session on Wednesday after a six day break, it appeared that lawmakers might simply punt the spending dispute into the New Year, as Democrats made clear they were not going to give the President money for his wall.

"The President said last week he would be proud to shut down the government," said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. "We Democrats don't want to shut down the government."

"We’ll see what happens," the President told reporters at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

That was much different from a week ago, when the President got into a verbal shoving match with top Democrats in the Congress, as he vowed to shut down the government over border security money if necessary.

The latest White House plan would have the Trump Administration find unused money in the federal budget, and shift that to the wall - but such a plan would require Congressional approval, and that seemed unlikely.

More conservative voices on the internet were not pleased.

"White House Signals Cave on Wall Funding, Shutdown," boomed the headline from Breitbart.

One Senate official told me last night that the hope was to swiftly wrap up work on a short-term spending plan, and maybe send lawmakers home by Thursday.

Even the President seemed to be signaling that the fight over border wall money would wait for another day, as he tweeted early on Wednesday morning.

"One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!" the President wrote.

About the Author