Tag Archives: overhaul

Congressional conservatives threaten criminal justice reform

A handful of Senate Republicans have dealt a severe blow to prospects for overhauling the criminal justice system in Congress this year, with one lawmaker calling the bipartisan legislation championed by President Barack Obama and some prominent conservatives “a massive social experiment in criminal leniency.” 

The opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and others will make it difficult for proponents to push the bill as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., assesses GOP support. Backed by the White House and a coalition of conservatives and liberals, supporters had hoped it would be a rare legislative accomplishment in a fiercely partisan election year and a final piece of Obama’s legacy.

At an event for congressional staff, Cotton and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., joined a group of federal prosecutors and argued against the bill, which would allow judges to reduce prison time for some drug offenders. The two senators — along with Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and David Perdue, R-Ga. — also issued statements of opposition.

Cotton later stood on the Senate floor, warning his colleagues that they would be held accountable if criminals were released and committed more crimes.

“If supporters of this bill and President Obama are wrong, if this grand experiment in criminal leniency goes awry, how many lives will be ruined?” Cotton asked. “How many dead? How much of the anti-crime progress of the last generation will be wiped away for the next?”

The bipartisan legislation, passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in November, would give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums, eliminating mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society. The idea is to make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Disparate voices — from Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries — have said the system is broken and have backed the Senate bill.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

Supporters of the bill are considering some changes to win over opponents, even though they sharply dispute the charge that the legislation would let violent criminals out of prison. Under the Senate bill, each case would be reviewed by a judge before the prison sentence was reduced.

Possible changes include revising or eliminating parts of the bill that would allow judges to consider reduced mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders or criminals who had possessed a firearm.

“How those changes will look is still being determined, but we’re moving ahead to get a bill ready to be considered on the Senate floor,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement early this week with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, another supporter.

Cotton said he has been talking to staff as they look at changes, but still believes the legislation is based on a “false premise” that those who would be released are low-level, nonviolent offenders. Cotton and others have been more supportive of the prison reform piece of the bill that helps prisoners re-enter society.

The Arkansas senator is talking to Senate colleagues individually as advocates rally McConnell to move the bill this year. Cotton’s lobbying pits him against Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has been pressing his colleagues to support it, saying that opposition from Cotton and other conservatives like Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has similar concerns, is misplaced.

As conservative opposition has grown, Cornyn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have said the legislation doesn’t have to move this year. Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said the legislation is a priority, but hasn’t committed to a timeline.

The House Judiciary Committee has approved several separate criminal justice bills, with the eventual goal of moving them separately or together on the House floor. 

President resists pressure to act alone on immigration

For a president looking for a legacy piece of legislation, the current state of the immigration debate represents a high-wire act.

President Barack Obama could act alone to slow deportations, and probably doom any chance of a permanent and comprehensive overhaul. Yet if he shows too much patience, the opportunity to fix immigration laws as he wants could well slip away.

As Republican leaders dampen expectations for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House is hoping that the GOP resistance is temporary and tactical, and Obama is resisting pressure from some political allies to take matters into his own hands and ease his administration’s deportation record.

House Speaker John Boehner recently all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall midterm elections, saying Republicans had trouble trusting that Obama would implement all aspects of an immigration law.

White House officials say they believe Boehner ultimately wants to get it done. But they acknowledge that Boehner faces stiff resistance from conservatives who oppose any form of legalization for immigrants who have crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas. As well, Republicans are eager to keep this election year’s focus on Obama’s health care law.

Obama is willing to give Boehner space to operate and to tamp down the conservative outcry that greeted a set of immigration overhaul principles the speaker brought forward last week. For now, the White House is simply standing behind a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate last year, but is not trying to press Boehner on how to proceed in the Republican-controlled House.

Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that Obama is waiting to see what the House passes before responding.

The White House view could be overly optimistic, playing down the strength of the opposition to acting this year.

For Republicans the immigration issue poses two political challenges. In the short term, it displays intraparty divisions when they want to use their unified opposition to the health care law as a key issue in the 2014 elections. Immigration distracts from that strategy. But failure to pass an immigration overhaul would be a significant drag on the chances of a Republican winning the 2016 presidential election if angry Latino voters are mobilized to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Making the case for a delay, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there’s “overwhelming support for doing nothing this year.” Labrador, who worked with a small group of Republicans and Democrats on comprehensive legislation last year then abandoned the negotiations, said it would be a mistake to have an internal battle in the GOP. He argued for waiting until next year when the Republicans might have control of the Senate.

Some Republican supporters of a new immigration law are pushing back.

“I’m trying to convince my colleagues that regardless of primaries, regardless of elections this November, that we have an obligation and a duty to solve this crisis once and for all,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., told the Spanish-language television network Telemundo in an interview scheduled to air Sunday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney did not criticize Boehner’s talk of a delay, though he called the speaker’s claims that Obama is the problem “an odd bit of diversion.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, did not hold back, signaling that Democrats are prepared to lay the blame on Boehner and his party if legislation does not materialize.

“Republicans should be candid about putting extremism ahead of the good of the country,” she said.

Democratic officials familiar with the White House thinking say there is also a possibility that the House could act in November or December, during a lame-duck session of Congress after the elections. That would require swift work in a short time. What’s more, if Republicans win control of the Senate, there would be pressure to leave the issue to the new Senate.

The longer the immigration issue remains unresolved, the more pressure will fall on Obama from immigrant advocates to act alone and ease the deportations that have been undertaken by his administration. Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than 1.9 million immigrants have been deported.

House conservatives say no to immigration reform in 2014

Conservative Republicans this week ruled out any immigration legislation in the House this year, insisting that the GOP should wait until next year when the party could also control the Senate.

House GOP leaders unveiled their broad immigration principles last week that gave hope to advocates and the Obama administration that the first changes in the nation’s laws in three decades might happen in the coming months.

Immigration legislation is one of the top priorities for President Barack Obama’s second term.

But several of the conservatives were adamant that the House should do nothing on the issue this year, a midterm election year when the GOP is angling to gain six seats in the Senate and seize majority control. Democrats currently have a 55-45 advantage but are defending more seats, including ones in Republican-leaning states.

“I think it’s a mistake for us to have an internal battle in the Republican Party this year about immigration reform,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told reporters at a gathering of conservatives. “I think when we take back the Senate in 2014 one of the first things we should do next year after we do certain economic issues, I think we should address the immigration issue.”

Labrador’s comments were noteworthy as he was one of eight House members working on bipartisan immigration legislation last year. He later abandoned the negotiations.

“This is not an issue that’s ready for prime time to move legislatively,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who said Republicans should use the principles to begin a dialogue with Hispanics.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the House should focus on the four bills dealing with security that the Judiciary Committee approved last summer. Absent any action on those bills, Jordan said it would be tough to do any immigration legislation this year.

The definitive statements from the conservatives came as Douglas Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, told a House panel that the comprehensive, Senate-passed immigration bill would have a positive impact on the nation’s finances.

The Senate last June passed a bipartisan bill that would tighten border security, provide enforcement measures and offer a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

The measure has stalled in the House where Speaker John Boehner and other leaders have rejected a comprehensive approach in favor of a bill-by-bill process.

Elmendorf told the House Budget Committee that a CBO analysis “found that that legislation would reduce budget deficits and lead to a larger economy and over time lead to higher output per person in this country.”

Specifically, he said additional workers, especially high-skilled, highly educated employees, would increase the nation’s tax revenues.

The House leaders’ broad principles would tighten border and interior security, establish a verification system for employers and legalize some of the 11 million immigrants. It would not provide a special path to citizenship to those living here illegally, though it would give children brought to the country by their parents a shot a citizenship.

Conservatives have said they distrust Obama to enforce any new law, citing his waivers and suspensions of provisions on the health care law.

Boehner said that Republicans were discussing “whether we should proceed, if we proceed and how we would proceed. It’s also clear from our members that we believe that securing our borders has to be the first step in this process.”

But he added that conversations are continuing and “no decision’s been made.”

Further tamping down any optimism for legislation this year was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who told reporters that differences between the Senate’s comprehensive approach and the House’s piecemeal strategy were an “irresolvable conflict.”

“I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place,” McConnell told reporters.

Family fight: GOP debates next move on immigration

House Republicans wrestled inconclusively with the outlines of immigration legislation on Jan. 30, sharply divided over the contentious issue itself and the political wisdom of acting on it in an election year.

At a three-day retreat on the frozen banks of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, GOP leaders circulated an outline that would guide the drafting of any House Republican legislation on the subject — a document that Speaker John Boehner told the rank and file was as far as the party was willing to go.

It includes a proposed pathway to legal status for millions of adults — after they pay back taxes and fines — but not the route to citizenship that President Barack Obama and many Democrats favor. Many younger Americans brought to the country without legal papers by their parents would be eligible for citizenship.

“For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degrees, we will do just that,” the statement said.

The principles also include steps to increase security at the nation’s borders and workplaces, declaring those a prerequisite for any of the other changes.

Many conservatives reacted negatively during the closed-door session in which rank and file debated the issue, in part on political grounds and in part out of opposition to granting legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.

“This is really a suicide mission for the Republican Party,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “While we’re winning in the polls, while `Obamacare’ is really dismantling, big government concepts of Democrats and Obama disintegrating, why in the world do we want to go out and change the subject and revive the patient?”

Underscoring the complex political situation, some Democrats reacted hopefully to the principles, even though the proposal for legal status falls short of the full citizenship that was included in a bipartisan measure that cleared the U.S. Senate last year with the support of Obama.

The White House issued a statement that said it welcomed “the process moving forward in the House, and we look forward to working with all parties to make immigration reform a reality.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the leader of House Democrats, said she hoped it was possible to find common ground. Yet she added that the Republican principles “raise more questions than answers,” including on the sensitive issue of citizenship.

The entire subject remains intensely controversial, particularly among conservatives in both houses of Congress.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who heads the Republican Study Conference, a group of conservative lawmakers, repeatedly declined to say on Thursday whether there were any circumstances under which he would be able to support legislation that bestowed legal status on adults currently living in the country illegally.

Another Republican, Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, told reporters that his constituents “definitely have big concerns about legalization.”

The drive to overhaul immigration laws flagged after the Senate acted, as House conservatives dug in. The House Judiciary Committee has approved four bills, but none has reached the House floor as conservatives have expressed concern about being drawn into an eventual compromise with the White House.

One of those bills would toughen enforcement of immigration laws, including a provision that would permit local police officers to enforce them as part of an attempt to raise the number of deportations. It also would encourage immigrants in the United States illegally to depart voluntarily, an echo of Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation” in the 2012 presidential race.

Other measures would create a new system for requiring employees to verify the legal status of their workers, establish a new temporary program for farm workers and expand the number of visas for employees in technology industries.

The political drive for immigration legislation among Republicans stems from the party’s abysmal showing in recent elections among Hispanic voters.

Yet many conservative House members are from congressional districts with relatively few Hispanic residents, and they have more to fear politically from a challenge from the right. Additionally, current polls suggest Republicans are well-positioned to retain control of the House and perhaps gain a Senate majority as well, so some strategists see even less reason for compromise on the issue than before.

As the House Republicans gathered, a prominent opponent of the Senate bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, circulated a detailed point-by-point rebuttal to the proposal that Boehner and the leadership have prepared. Congress “must end lawlessness, not surrender to it,” he said.

Boehner is moving carefully after failing a year ago to persuade the Republican rank and file to support an overhaul.

“It’s time to deal with it, but how you deal with it is critically important,” he said at a news conference Thursday.

It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind the law, he said.

Fleming said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, and California Rep. Jeff Denham spoke in favor of acting this year, but a number of Republicans questioned the timing, and several had serious reservations about the principles.

Numerous Republicans told reporters they wanted the party to be seen as offering alternatives to Obama this year rather than simply opposing him.

Aside from the immigration question, several said they favor drafting health care legislation for floor debate. Republicans campaigned as vigorous opponents of “Obamacare” when they won power in 2010, vowing to “repeal and replace” the law.

Three years later, they have voted more than 40 times to repeal or eviscerate the law, and they triggered a partial government shutdown last year in a failed attempt to defund it. But they have yet to produce an alternative, and some strategists argue the law is so unpopular that it would be a mistake to do so.

Immigration reform backers plan push

Backers of comprehensive immigration legislation are gearing up for a campaign to push the House to act, even as some begin openly voicing fears they’re already losing the fight.

Congress’ monthlong August recess could be crucial and supporters aim to exert influence in dozens of congressional districts home to Republican House members seen as open to reform.

Business and religious groups and others with ties to the GOP majority are under pressure to win over lawmakers through tailor-made campaigns from within their districts, involving ministers, local executives and other contacts. Immigration activists, labor leaders and others on the left are making plans for large-scale mobilizations such as rallies and marches to exert pressure from without.

“Here’s the fact: We’re not winning, so we’ve got to wage a campaign,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a lead author of the Senate-passed immigration bill. “There are many members of the House that don’t want to take up any bill at all, as you know. What our job is, we want to convince them to at least pass legislation, so that we can go to conference and work together.”

The scenario supporters hope to avoid is what happened to President Barack Obama’s health care bill in the summer of 2009, when it was savaged by irate voters at unruly town hall meetings, taking a beating it never really recovered from.

“August is a month in which either legislative proposals die, or they survive,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. He said those who favor immigration legislation must be heard in August. “And if we do that, we’ll be well positioned for the fall in the House. If we don’t, then we run a risk.”

Immigration legislation, a top priority for Obama, has been in limbo since the Senate last month passed a sweeping bill with provisions aimed at securing the border, requiring employers to verify their workers’ legal status, allowing many more workers into the country legally, and offering eventual citizenship to the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.

Many members of the House’s Republican majority oppose citizenship for people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has ruled out taking up the Senate bill in the House. Instead, he’s declared that the House will move in a piecemeal fashion, beginning with border security.

Although Boehner had hoped for House action on immigration before August, that goal is no longer in sight. He reiterated Thursday that the House must address the issue. When and how remained unclear, although Boehner said he hoped to see the House pass something before Congress next confronts raising the debt ceiling, which is expected sometime this fall.

Authors of the Senate bill summoned dozens of business lobbyists, officials with religious groups and others to the Capitol earlier this week to tell them they needed to work harder and coordinate better to win over House Republicans. The senators distributed a list of 121 House Republicans seen as persuadable, and instructed those present to focus on tailoring individual campaigns for their congressional districts.

“We are going to have numerous business contacts – whether it be a local restaurant that cares about immigration or a high-tech or manufacturing or financial business in their district – contacting them in terms of how important this is to the future of jobs in each district,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The coalition that supports immigration overhaul includes agriculture interests, businesses large and small, Catholics and evangelicals, high-profile Republicans, labor groups and others. By most measures, it dwarfs those opposed to reform, including tea party activists and lesser-known groups such as NumbersUSA, as well as some leading Republican voices.

“We’re up against a very shrill minority,” said Charles Spies, a GOP fundraiser and co-founder of the group Republicans for Immigration Reform.

Yet thus far, supporters have not translated their greater numbers and bigger budgets into a successful campaign to shift opinion among House Republicans.

Some officials with outside groups say that until recently their attention was focused on the Senate, arguing that as they begin to make inroads in congressional districts their efforts will show.

Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group is making plans for everything from plant tours for members of Congress to showing up at their town halls over August, all aimed at “making sure they understand there are folks out there that do support moving forward on immigration reform and want the House to proceed.”

That’s not keeping some, on the right and left, from criticizing business in particular for failing to spend more money and push harder in the fight.

“The business wing of the GOP has been outhustled by the anti-immigrant wing of the GOP for years,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which supports immigration reform. “This is the moment, and they’ve really got to throw down.”

Yet some House Republicans say there’s a limit to how much outside groups can influence their thinking anyway, saying they’re more interested in what their constituents have to say.

Obama still looking for Term II wins

A dramatic tax-raising deal last New Year’s looked like it might be a breakthrough, signaling improved second-term relations between newly re-elected President Barack Obama and a divided Congress. At least that’s what the White House hoped.

But six months later, growing uncertainty over a sweeping immigration overhaul measure has dimmed expectations for a big summertime achievement and left Obama still in search of a marquee legislative accomplishment to mark his second four years.

His advisers now concede that their best shot at changing the immigration system might come in the fall, after lawmakers return from their August recess. But that could be a long shot during a period already crowded with other issues.

During the autumn months, Obama’s administration will be dealing with one of the most challenging aspects of the historic health care overhaul – signing up millions of Americans for insurance coverage. And if that’s not enough, Obama also will be locked in an unexpected battle over domestic food aid – while working through budget disputes with Congress as the new fiscal year looms in October and the government approaches its borrowing limit. Then there’s overseas turmoil in Egypt and Syria.

Already shadowing the president are two major letdowns earlier this year – a gun control measure that Republicans blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the failure to avoid automatic spending cuts that further trimmed the government’s budget.

“He has a Herculean task ahead of him,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said hours after he and other black lawmakers met with the president this week. “I am convinced he is fully aware of the difficulties in his path, difficulties that could reduce his legacy.”

Before his re-election, Obama liked to tell supporters that a second term would “break the fever” with Republicans, arguing that they no longer would need to routinely block his agenda because he wouldn’t be seeking election again. By last month, that optimism was gone.

“When it comes to doing the things that need to get done, we’re just not getting a lot of cooperation from the other side,” he grumbled to donors at a June fundraiser in Palo Alto, Calif.

Republicans maintain that Obama’s initiatives simply go further than they are willing to go. Many refused to support expanded background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows and online. They rejected Obama’s efforts to combine spending cuts with more tax increases. And now, on immigration, many oppose a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the United States – a key provision in the overhaul Obama seeks.

To be sure, the legislative gridlock has occasionally eased. In February, Republican leaders allowed an expansion to the Violence Against Women Act by extending domestic violence protections to gays, lesbians and transsexuals. And Republicans and Democrats are still trying to strike a deal that would lower interest rates on student loans.

But another trouble spot for Obama emerged just recently on what historically has been a guaranteed bipartisan achievement: approval of legislation that includes money for agricultural subsidies and food stamps. The Senate passed a single measure. The House defeated its version. And Republican leaders this week divided that measure into two. Obama, who opposes proposed cuts to food stamps in the House bill, has threatened a veto, signaling the food fight could consume the coming weeks.

White House aides say they’re not surprised by the difficulties Obama faces.

“No one expected that postelection everything would be easy, that all the historic, huge differences between the parties on the big issues would all go away,” said senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

“We’re six months into our term,” he added. “We’ve already fulfilled one of our biggest campaign pledges in preserving tax cuts for the middle class and having the rates of the wealthy go back to what they were under President Clinton.” On immigration, he says that “there are some serious challenges in the way, but six months in and having a bill through the Senate with a bipartisan majority is historically rapid progress.”

Still, White House aides had argued that a solid bipartisan vote on immigration in the Senate would give the legislation momentum through the House. Two weeks ago, at a news conference in South Africa, Obama called on the House to act before the August recess. “Now is the time,” he declared.

House Republicans ignored him, saying they would not take up the Senate bill and would instead tackle immigration in a piecemeal way. “I’m much more concerned about doing it right than I am in meeting some deadline,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

That decision put a sizable question mark over one of Obama’s biggest second-term priorities.

“This is going to be a tougher fight than people had anticipated,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic-leaning Washington think tank and a longtime advocate of overhauling immigration laws. “It could go on for six months; it could go on for the next couple of years.”

Some Obama allies fear that failure to win on immigration – an issue many believed was ripe for change after last year’s elections – will simply embolden his opponents. Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, said it “could conceivably wound the president in a way that would make the next three years move very, very slowly and painfully.”

Others are still upbeat.

“It’s an important moment that could help him if something gets done, if not in his timeline, in the near future,” said Patrick Griffin, who handled legislative relations for former President Bill Clinton.

As significant as the immigration legislation may be, Obama is treading carefully, wary of alienating Republicans. He has faced some pressure to speak out more forcefully and to use the power of his office to give immigration the visibility he has given to past clashes with Congress over taxes and student loans.

“Every situation is different,” David Plouffe, Obama’s former top political adviser, said after visiting the White House this week. “Some have called for more of an approach that is geared to the outside. I think you have to wait and see how this develops.”

While White House aides and advisers believe Republicans will inflict long-lasting political damage on their own party if they continue to block a comprehensive immigration bill, those advisers say Obama is not ready to hit the road and wage a full-throated partisan fight.

“We’re doing meetings, we’re talking to folks, we’re behind the scenes at every step,” Pfeiffer said. Asked when the pressure might mount, he said: “There might be a moment where the hammer comes out. But we’re not there yet.”