Then there’s the possibility of GOP primary challengers attacking incumbents. Lukewarm senators might be asking McConnell to spare them the vote, Ring said. “For every Republican senator who’s saying, ‘I have problems with this,’ my sense is that there’s another one saying to McConnell, ‘I’d rather not have to vote on this.’”
There’s also the question of McConnell’s personal opinion. “He doesn’t like the bill,” the GOP donor and White House ally Doug Deason told the Post. He compared the majority leader to the hard-line former attorney general: “He’s a Jeff Sessions–style, lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy.” However, Tolman said that when he met with McConnell, the senator indicated he was “not really putting his finger on the scale one way or another.”
If not this year, how about in 2019?
“I’m pretty confident, given the broad support that it has, that it would pass next year,” McConnell predicted at the Wall Street Journal event. Supporters disagree. “This really does need to get done this year,” Senator Mike Lee, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Utah who backs the reforms, told The Journal last month. “Saying that we’ll do it next year is tantamount to saying this just isn’t going to get done.”
The two advocates agreed. “You start all over again,” Ring said. “You’re back to square zero,” Tolman said. The politics will change with Democrats taking control in the House. Progressives, especially new representatives who ran on social-justice platforms, could push for more dramatic reforms. Most House opposition was among Democrats who thought the original bill without sentencing reforms did not do enough. In May, with opposition from former Attorney General Eric Holder and others on the left, 57 of the 59 “no” votes came from Democrats.
Read: Democrats split over Trump’s prison pitch
More generous policies could exceed Trump’s tolerance; if he withdrew his endorsement, Republicans on the fence would lose their cover with the party’s base. In the Senate, Ring said, the bill would lose supporters like the retiring Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, and GOP newcomers seem likely to oppose the legislation. The bipartisan consensus of the past four years could evaporate, leaving a partisan fight in which reform goes nowhere.
When asked about the bill’s odds during the lame-duck session, Tolman put them at 50–50 but sounded an optimistic note: “I was in the Senate, and we passed things that had worse odds than this. I think it’s very possible.” Ring took several breaths before answering. “I’ve always been pessimistic,” he said. “I worked on the Hill. I was a lobbyist. I know that it’s easier to kill things than pass things.”