WASHINGTON — Efforts to change the nation’s criminal justice system got a major boost Tuesday.
Congressional leaders began pushing a budget deal Tuesday to raise the debt limit and avert a shutdown until 2017. Although the funding bill is completely separate from the criminal justice legislation lawmakers have been working on, if approved, it would give Congress more breathing room to focus on criminal justice changes before the 2016 election heats up.
With funding for the government set to expire in mid-December, advocates had been concerned that fiscal issues would dominate Congress through this year and potentially into next year, delaying the measure which has bipartisan support and took more than three years to negotiate.
But if the budget deal is signed into law, it could add to the momentum building in favor of the criminal justice legislation, which would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentencing.
“This is the best possible scenario for us that the budget stuff is working itself out,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network. “This has cleared the way for our legislation.”
Republican leaders in the Senate even addressed the issue in their weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon, which in itself was a major victory, Harris said.
“Just the fact that leadership is talking about this bill is monumental," she said. "A year ago, many thought this wasn’t possible. In fact, two months ago no one thought this was possible.”
Harris's group is one of many from across the political spectrum pushing for criminal justice changes. They include the Charles Koch Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation, which would overhaul mandatory minimum sentences — among other changes — by a 15-5 vote last week. Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running for president, voted against the measure. But one of his closest allies, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, is a cosponsor of the bill, making it difficult for Cruz find enough support to derail the legislation even if he takes it to the campaign trail.
During the Senate GOP leadership's weekly press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn urged the Senate to take up the issue as soon as possible.
"The president’s in Chicago today talking about criminal justice reform, and as you know, there’s a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, one composed of sentencing reforms and also prison reforms,” Cornyn told reporters.
"This is one area where I've told the majority leader that with that kind of broad bipartisan support, hopefully after we get through the rest of this year's business, this is something we could take up," he said. "The House is considering a similar bill. And with the president's support of the idea of criminal justice reform, it's seems like the time is right. “
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for bringing up the legislation to the floor for a vote, but did not give a timeline. "It's certainly going to get floor time in this Congress, but I can't give you an exact time at this point,” he told reporters.
Senate GOP aides believe it will be hard to take up the issue before next year even if the budget is taken care of in the coming days.
But it does give senators who are supporting the measure the time and energy needed to lobby their colleagues and gear up for a vote when Congress returns in January.
"I'm just encouraged by the momentum on criminal justice reform overall," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker told BuzzFeed News. "This bipartisan, bicameral energy is encouraging. It shows that we can come together and get things done."