“I think [McConnell] is bowing to reality, and the reality is that it was a 15-5 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Five of our [GOP] members had reservations. We have been trying to work with them to try and address changes in the legislation that might get them on the bill,” Cornyn said.
“We have got some work to do to try to build that consensus. We are, I would say, more at the beginning of the process than the end of the process. But I have asked all of my colleagues to work with us to try and find out where that consensus lies,” Cornyn said Wednesday.
There’s likely more than enough support in the full Senate to approve the bill. But the bill is nonetheless unlikely to come up unless there’s broad support among Republicans. “You would want to have a big vote, and certainly on our side we would want to have our guys by and large in favor of where it was headed,” Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP’s leadership team, told National Journal on Wednesday.
The measure also enables reduced prison terms for people who take part in programs to cut their risk of recidivism, and overhauls sentencing policy for gun-related offenses in ways that expand some penalties while trimming others.
The bill faces multiple objections. Some Republicans say it’s essentially soft on crime.
“I don’t think people have studied it closely, and I think [when] they do, they are going to be far more troubled than they think,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, who voted against the bill in the Judiciary Committee, told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday.
“We are at a point where we are seeing smaller federal and state prison populations and you are going to see an increase in crime, an increase in violent crime; it is already beginning to occur. We are also softening our approach to drugs, and you are going to see more deaths from heroin, and more crime related to drug abuse,” Sessions said.
He and fellow Republicans Ted Cruz—who is a leading GOP White House contender—Orrin Hatch, David Perdue, and David Vitter opposed the bill in committee, while Cornyn and the other committee Republicans joined Democrats in support.
Another stumbling block is a GOP-led push to add provisions that would substantially expand the number of crimes for which prosecutors must show that defendants knew that their conduct was illegal.
The push led by Hatch to expand “mens rea” (or “guilty mind”) requirements was the subject of a hearing Wednesday in the Judiciary Committee that saw supporters of the bill urging their GOP colleagues not to let the mens rea issue take down the whole bill.
“In the coming weeks, we have an historic opportunity to pass legislation that will correct some of the worst injustices in our criminal-justice system,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the panel. “All of this progress is now at risk because some are demanding sweeping changes that would make it harder to hold corporations accountable when they sell food that sickens consumers, endangers workers, or poisons our water supply.”