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Eager for Lame Duck Win, Trump Backs Prison Reform Bill

Members of both parties, Jared Kushner negotiated plan for months

President Donald Trump enters the Capitol for a meeting with House Republicans in June. His former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a list of charges on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump enters the Capitol for a meeting with House Republicans in June. His former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a list of charges on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Eager for a legislative win in the lame duck session, President Donald Trump on Wednesday endorsed legislation that would alter prison and sentencing policies as he tries to show he can push bipartisan bills through Congress.

Trump had been reluctant for months about whether to endorse the bill, which would include criminal justice changes backed by members of both parties in the House and Senate. His son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, has been working with members of both parties to craft the measure and scored a big win with the presidential endorsement.

Trump signed a bipartisan bill last month providing federal funds to counter the country’s opioid crisis. But other than that, his major legislative accomplishments — including a GOP tax law that also ended the 2010 health law’s individual insurance mandate and opened the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling — were passed without a single Democratic vote.

With Democrats taking control of the House in January, the president who spent the midterm season’s final weeks harshly criticizing Democrats as fans of socialism and “the party of crime” is eager to show he is willing to get behind some of their ideas if it means getting some things done.

“It’s a first step,” he said. “But it’s a nice first step.”

Two key sponsors of the legislation, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., voiced their pleasure with the president’s position. 

“We are grateful for the White House’s ongoing engagement to make these long-overdue reforms a reality. With the President’s support and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s pledge to hold a vote on the broadly popular package, we can quickly take a critical first step towards reforming our criminal justice system.”

The president said, if passed and made law, the measure would give former inmates “a second chance” and allow them to become “law-abiding” and successful citizens with a “new job” and a “new life.”

He touted the measure’s “incentives” to help those with records get vocational training and other education to prevent them from “going back to prison.” He also praised the bill for proposing “reasonable sentencing reforms” while also keeping stiff penalties for the most violent criminals in place. Trump also praised the measure for proposing changes to policies that disproportionately hindered African-Americans.

The president praised members of both parties for “pouring their hearts” and their “energy” into negotiations to get this far. “We appreciate what you’ve done,” he told a group of lawmakers assembled behind him.

“Did I hear the word bipartisan?” Trump asked rhetorically as they applauded. “That’s a nice word.”

By endorsing the legislation, Trump is trying to build on comments he made during a raucous press conference last Wednesday, the day after his party lost control of the House.

“When you look at it from the standpoint of negotiation, when you look at it from the standpoint of deal-making — because it’s all about deal-making — again, if we had the majority, and we had one or two or three votes to play with [in the Senate], we would … have been at a standstill,” Trump said then.

“I really believe that we have a chance to get along very well with the Democrats. And if that’s the case, we can do a tremendous amount of legislation and get it approved by both parties,” he added.

Trump even seemed pleased about losing control of the House, predicting “much less gridlock” than if the midterms had turned out “any other way.”

But getting the measure through the Senate is no sure thing. All eyes now turn to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky Republican’s whip team as they try to determine if there is ample support within the chamber to pass it.

Trump also has heard from outside stakeholders, including rapper Kanye West, on what they see as the importance of passing a reform measure.

Changes to the measure, which has been endorsed by several major law enforcement organizations, might be needed to attract enough Democrats to clear a 60-vote threshold to limit debate and move to a final vote.

“When Republicans and Democrats talk, we can achieve breakthroughs,” Trump said Wednesday. “I look very much forward to signing it. … I’ll be waiting with a pen.”

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