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Trump endorses bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill

The new Senate package includes lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, including reducing the "three-strikes" penalty from life behind bars to 25 years.

President Donald Trump speaks about H. R. 5682, the 'First Step Act' in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, which would reform America's prison system.
President Donald Trump speaks about H. R. 5682, the 'First Step Act' in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, which would reform America's prison system.Read moreAndrew Harnik / AP Photo

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump threw his support Wednesday behind legislation that would loosen some mandatory minimum sentencing laws – a measure backed by powerful Senate Republicans and Democrats, but which could run into opposition from some tough-on-crime conservatives.

At an afternoon event at the White House, Trump officially endorsed the "First Step Act," which he said included "reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets." He urged lawmakers to send him a bill, saying: "I'll be waiting with a pen."

"Today's announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible," Trump said. "This is a big breakthrough for a lot of people . . . They've been talking about this for many, many years."

The compromise criminal justice measure, which was hammered out in principle over the summer by a bipartisan group of senators, adds four provisions to a House-passed bill that focused on reducing prisoner recidivism.

The new Senate package includes language that lowers mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, including reducing the "three-strikes" penalty from life behind bars to 25 years. That provision would not be allowed to take place retroactively, a major concession from Democrats.

It also would include Senate language that retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. And it would reduce mandatory minimum sentences that go into effect when a firearm is used during a violent crime or drug offense. The latter also would not apply to people already sentenced for these crimes.

In addition, the agreement lets judges take advantage of "safety valves" – which allow them to issue sentences shorter than mandatory minimums for low-level crimes – in more cases.

Trump was privately briefed on the legislation's contents at a meeting Tuesday. There, he signaled that he favors the bill, but did not explicitly commit one way or the other and indicated that he would like more law enforcement groups to endorse the measure.

The influential Fraternal Order of Police, the world's largest group of sworn law enforcement officials, gave the bill significant momentum by endorsing the latest compromise.

"Criminal justice reform has been on the agenda for the last two administrations, but it seems like President Trump is going to be able to get it done," said Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, who was standing beside Trump when he announced his support of the bill.

Also standing with Trump was Paul Cell, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who have worked jointly on the bill for years, said Wednesday that "by ensuring that punishments fit the crimes, we can better balance the scales of justice."

"We are grateful for the White House's ongoing engagement to make these long-overdue reforms a reality," Grassley and Durbin said in a statement. "With the President's support and [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."

Yet McConnell, R-Ky., has so far taken a hands-off approach to the bill, whose earlier versions had driven deep rifts through the GOP conference.

"We need an actual proposal, then we would take a whip count, see where we stand and then weigh it at that point against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished" such as the farm bill and spending bills for government agencies, McConnell said Wednesday. "We don't have a whole lot of time left."

It's unclear now whether there are 60 votes in the Senate in favor of the compromise, although advocates are optimistic that with Trump's endorsement giving cover to Republicans, they can reach that threshold. People working to pass the bill believe that Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., James Risch, R-Idaho, and John Neely Kennedy, R-La., are out of reach, but that every other Senate Republican either support the bill or could be persuaded in favor of it.

And another obstacle for the bill's supporters was removed when former attorney general Jeff Sessions, an avowed opponent of any measure that would relax sentencing laws, resigned from his post last week. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, has worked closely on the criminal justice issue for months.

Still, "I think it's more coincidental" that the new push is coming after Sessions left the administration, a White House official said Wednesday. "There was no correlation between those two."

Senators have also added language that would bar prisoners who had been convicted of certain fentanyl offenses – primarily those that involved five- and 10-year mandatory minimums – from being able to receive credit for time served.

Canterbury said a sticking point for the FOP was language in the original bill that would have allowed dealers of illicit fentanyl to receive reduced sentences.

"We wanted it to be well-defined that violent felons wouldn't get reduced sentences," said Canterbury, who said his organization endorsed the legislation when that change and others was made.

Many sentencing reform advocates applauded Trump's endorsement, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, one of the leading organizations that has pushed for criminal justice changes.

"Today's endorsement of federal criminal justice reform legislation by President Trump is a modern-day "Nixon goes to China moment," said Kevin Ring, the group's president.

Durbin, the chief Democratic negotiator on the bill, will work on rounding up votes on his side, but could struggle with the more liberal members of his caucus who dislike the concessions made to Republicans.

Indeed, the Sentencing Project, another advocacy group, expressed reservations about the legislation for not going far enough, but said Trump's endorsement of the bill is "progress."

Even if the bill gets through the Senate, it has to pass the House again since it revises a prison reform bill that the House cleared earlier this year. Supporters will now begin rounding up votes in favor of the compromise, but Trump's endorsement of the measure could ease Republican resistance to the changes.

The White House official said the administration has been in touch with key House leaders and lawmakers as the Senate crafted changes.

"My sense is that the House will be very constructive," the official said. The revisions "are ones that we think will be able to go down in the House as well, so we're not as worried about that."

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The Washington Post's Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.