President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his support for the first major rewrite of the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws in a generation.
"Today I'm thrilled to announce my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time," Trump said at the White House, hailing the deal as proof that "true bipartisanship is possible."
Lawmakers reached an agreement this week on the bipartisan legislation that would boost rehabilitation efforts for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses.
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Criminal justice reform has been a priority of Trump's son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has been working on the issue for many months.
Trump pushed for swift passage of the legislation, potentially during the lame-duck session of Congress.
"I'll be waiting with a pen," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. was cautious about the bill's prospects Wednesday. He told reporters that GOP leaders would do a whip count to gauge the bill's support once they have a final proposal in hand.
Still, he noted the Senate has other things it needs to accomplish in the final weeks of the year, including funding the government and passing a farm bill. He said Republicans would have to see how the criminal justice bill "stacks up against our other priorities" once a final agreement is reached.
"We don't have a whole lot of time left, but the first step is to finalize what proponents are actually for," McConnell said. "There have been a lot of different versions floating around. And then we'll whip it and see where the vote count is and then see how it stacks up against our other priorities going on here to the end of the session."
The bill is a rare bipartisan endeavor in a typically log-jammed Congress and has attracted support from a coalition of liberal and conservative groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and groups backed by the political donors Charles and David Koch. Critics say current sentencing guidelines are unfair and have had a lopsided impact on minority communities.
The Senate package overhauls some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have been in place since 1994 legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Talks involved a bipartisan group headed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, and others.
Officials said Trump's backing would be key.
"Senator Durbin has been negotiating in good faith, but there won't be any agreement on a criminal justice reform compromise unless and until President Trump supports it and asks the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress to move it forward," Emily Hampsten, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Democrat, said Tuesday.
Grassley said the bill would be easier to pass after the departure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was ousted by Trump last week. Sessions was a longtime opponent of criminal justice reform.
"I think we have a commitment from the Justice Department now to work with us on it," Grassley said.
The federal inmate population has been on the decline since 2013, when it peaked at just more than 219,000. The total now stands at about 181,400, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Still, that's about triple the number of inmates in federal detention 30 years ago.
The House approved a prison reform bill in May, but the Senate package makes additional changes and adds the sentencing component.