It’s the holiday season but knives are out on Capitol Hill—only this time it’s Republicans thrusting daggers into the backs of fellow Republicans over the effort to revive a prison reform measure that tough-on-crime hardliners have blocked for years.
Tension has been brewing in the Capitol for the past couple weeks over the bill aimed at allowing prisoners to get out of jail early if they take concrete steps to better themselves while incarcerated. That’s because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised the legislation’s main sponsors he would bring it up for a vote in the waning days of this congressional session—if they could bring him proof they had the majority support of his party.
They did. But Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and his few remaining allies claimed the legislation lacked the votes to get over the finish line. This week, after a 280-character prod from President Trump, McConnell relented and announced he’d bring the bill up for a vote, possibly as early as this week.
Cotton’s not giving up his fight though. Instead, he’s painting the measure’s Republican supporters as enablers of the worst imaginable crimes.
“If other senators want to vote for a bill that’s going to let sex offenders and child pornographers and wife-beaters out of prison, that’s their prerogative,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s between them and the voters in their state. I’m not going to vote for that.”
While the legislation has been promised a vote, there are only about two-and-a-half weeks before this Congress gavels out and the new one is seated, and lawmakers still have a plethora of other bills to deal with, including one to avoid a government shutdown. And Cotton is preparing a slew of amendments to delay and potentially derail the bipartisan reform effort.
A Harvard Law-educated combat veteran, Cotton says he supports efforts to curb high recidivism rates, but draws a line in the sand at anything that even hints at loosening unforgivingly stiff sentences. And he isn’t going down without a battle, even if that means going after the members of his party who oppose him, including President Trump.
“When you release thousands of serious and violent felons within just weeks or months, it’s an almost mathematical certainty that one of them will commit a terrible crime,” Cotton said. “Anyone who votes for this bill will have to answer for that crime.”
That kind of deeply personal accusation has many of Cotton’s fellow conservatives bristling.
“That is the most downward-looking opinion I have heard on criminal justice reform in a long time. It’s sad,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) told The Daily Beast.
In January, Collins is slated to become the highest-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee after beating back a bid for the post from a more senior colleague.
“My question would be, to the senator, is why would you want to spend money doing the same way, the same way and getting a worse result—why would we want to continue doing that?” Collins added. “If you want to simply say that the old way works then show me the results of that. It doesn’t work.”
Cotton’s sharp polemics aren’t winning him the love, or even much respect, from fellow Republicans in the Senate either.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told The Daily Beast. “We’re enhancing programs that already exist essentially, so that’s just an unfair characterization, but if you want to find a way to scare people into voting ‘No’ this is probably a good tactic.”
The bill also has the support of Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley of Iowa and even Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)—and they’re predicting they’ve secured the support of more than 70, and potentially as many as 80, of their peers on both sides of the aisle. They argue Cotton’s missing the point by focusing only on the portion of the bill that allows some nonviolent inmates to potentially shave a few years off their sentences.
Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, says it’s Cotton, along with other opponents, who have the answering to do, because the measure mirrors other similar successful efforts like those enacted in conservative states like Georgia, Texas and his own South Carolina.
“It’s actually a picture of crime that’s not being committed,” Scott continued. “So those who don’t support this criminal justice reform are actually contributing to a higher level of return of folks coming back.”