WASHINGTON — Reversing course, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on Tuesday that the Senate would vote on a substantial criminal justice bill before the end of the year, stiff-arming some of his hard-line conservatives and teeing up a bipartisan policy achievement that has eluded lawmakers for years.
Advocates of the prison and sentencing law changes on Capitol Hill and in the White House have spent weeks lobbying McConnell, the majority leader who controls the Senate calendar. Crucially, they had the backing of President Donald Trump, who endorsed the bill last month and urged McConnell in recent days to “Go for it Mitch!” — offering cover to conservative lawmakers skeptical of voting to roll back some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, proponents of the bill, the First Step Act, believe the changes could receive as many as 75 votes in the Senate. Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who privately pressured McConnell to take up the bill, has already pledged swift action before the House leaves town for the year-end holidays.
In exchange for his backing, Trump is on the cusp of claiming one of the first truly bipartisan legislative achievements of his presidency, a welcome win just a little more than a month after voters chose to end complete Republican control of Washington. In the compromise, Trump could find a model for how to work with Democrats when they assume the House majority in January.
Broadly speaking, the bill pairs investments in anti-recidivism programs in federal prisons and an expansion of early release credits with changes to sentencing laws. Its authors have made a set of yet-to-be-released revisions to accommodate Republican concerns in recent days, but even with the changes, the bill is still expected to impact thousands of current federal inmates and future offenders.
Many of the changes are said to be designed to limit the types of offenders who would be eligible for early release credits under the law.
Before Tuesday, McConnell had repeatedly said that there was most likely not enough time to consider the measure this year, and Republican leaders maintained as recently as a few days ago that the bill did not have the support of the majority of Republicans. Proponents feared that without a vote this year, the deal would have fallen apart in the new Congress because Democrats would demand more liberal changes to sentencing laws.
McConnell made clear on Tuesday that the Senate was considering the legislation “at the request of the president” and said that debate could begin later this week. With the addition of new business, McConnell also held out something of a threat: If senators were not willing to expedite consideration of some issues before the Senate, the chamber could hold votes the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
McConnell’s chief lieutenant, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, quickly seized on the news to announce that he, too, would personally vote for the bill. He had been accused by some fellow Republicans and outside conservative advocacy groups of quietly trying to kill their efforts.
Still, strong opposition remained among some conservatives. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the bill’s leading critics, said he was prepared to try to amend the bill on the Senate floor “to address its many remaining threats to public safety.”
“Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals,” he said in a statement. “This includes felons who commit violent bank robberies with dangerous weapons, who assault children, and who commit carjacking with the intent to cause death.”