Criminal Justice

Sen. John Cornyn pauses as he speak to the media.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn has found himself in the middle of an internal GOP firefight in the final days of the lame duck. | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Congress

Cornyn under fire from GOP as criminal justice reform falters

Advocates of the Trump-endorsed bill say the Senate GOP whip isn’t accurately counting votes.

John Cornyn is facing a grievous insult during a last-ditch effort to pass criminal justice reform: Senate Republicans can’t trust their own whip’s count.

The Texas Republican and Senate majority whip has worked on the issue for years and is trying to win over the National Sheriffs’ Association in the latest effort to build more GOP support.

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Yet Republicans pushing the sentencing and prison reform bill privately and publicly say he’s essentially undermining the push by not accurately assessing support for it or supporting it himself, a charge Cornyn rejects.

Cornyn has to juggle his personal views of the effort with his job as deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been reluctant to take up the bill because it sharply divides his conference — even with a coveted endorsement from President Donald Trump.

The result is that Cornyn finds himself in the middle of an internal GOP firefight in the final days of the lame duck. And with his vote-counting acumen under attack from outside the Capitol, Cornyn said he finds the criticism “bizarre” as he deals with the warring factions of his party and a year-end time crunch.

“This is something I’ve supported a long, long time. I had a conversation as recently as this morning with National Sheriffs’ Association and the head of the Texas Sheriffs’ Association to try and get this thing where actually more of the Republican Conference would support it,” Cornyn said Monday. “The criticism is either from people who don’t understand what the job of the whip is, or how actually legislation gets passed.”

He added one last brushback to his critics: Advocates’ “energy is best channeled into trying to get more votes. And not attack the messenger.”

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But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Cornyn and McConnell’s internal whip count hasn’t moved even as Republicans have continued to build support for the bill. Grassley said his effort has “gone from a lot less than 30” Republicans to 30 of 51 in the Senate GOP and that he’s puzzled at why Cornyn isn’t one of them when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsed the bill last week.

With Democrats taking back the House and a fragile compromise hanging in the balance, as Grassley put it: “What more do you need from a law enforcement standpoint than a guy like Cruz?!”

“His state has been very successful at reforms. And that’s saving lots of money. So I’m just a little confused. I’m just a little confused,” Grassley said. “Common sense tells me he needs to be for it.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Cornyn is “navigating” a difficult situation as well as he can. But he, too, said GOP leaders are underestimating the bill’s support.

Cornyn’s “hotter on it than the majority leader is,” Flake said of the criminal justice reform. But according to his “unscientific” whip count “there’s a pretty good majority for it.”

The skirmish comes at an inflection point for Cornyn. He has just three weeks left in the party leadership because of term limits and is beginning to prepare for a reelection campaign after Democrats’ strongest performance in Texas in decades. He’s also dealing with a fight over Trump’s border wall and must make sure the GOP has the votes to prevent a partial government shutdown.

McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has repeatedly stated there’s probably not enough room in the schedule to move the criminal justice bill. Yet he’s also not entirely ruled out action, giving advocates a ray of hope for the latest version of the bill, which still has not been introduced.

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Cornyn was a lead sponsor of sweeping criminal justice reform during Barack Obama’s presidency that never become law, but argued for a narrower proposal when the law-and-order Trump took office. But now Trump is endorsing a broader package that includes both prison and sentencing reforms and is urging passage of the bipartisan agreement before the GOP loses unified control of Congress.

The No. 2 Senate Republican says he hopes Congress can get it done. But given his track record on the issue and unique position of influence, advocates for the sentencing reform bill say Cornyn should be doing more, even as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offers biting criticisms of the bill.

Grassley and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have publicly touted the swelling support, in contrast to Cornyn. The Dallas Morning News asserted Cornyn has been “tepid” in his leadership on the issue. And longtime reformers say Cornyn is getting cold feet.

“I have no sympathy for John Cornyn. None. If he’s in an awkward spot it’s because he put himself here,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a supporter of the reform bill who also blamed McConnell for not scheduling a vote. “If we don’t get this across the finish line, the person I will blame is John Cornyn.”

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, accused Cornyn of providing McConnell with an inaccurate whip count last week. On Monday, Harris seemed more optimistic about Cornyn’s involvement, though she said because of the “craziness of the competing whips, there’s a lot of frustration in the reform community.”

“We’re hearing very positive things about his engagement,” Harris said as the bill’s supporters prepared to release their final compromise. “Sen. Cornyn is a powerful man. He hails from a place that is considered the birthplace of criminal justice reform. … You always have a complicated situation when you’re a member of leadership.”

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Indeed, Cornyn’s role in the GOP at this moment would be difficult for anyone: McConnell is “really reluctant” to bring the bill to the floor, Grassley said. And Cornyn’s job is to assess support for the legislation in the caucus. He can’t exactly twist arms for the bill if McConnell is simply trying to get a dispassionate view of the conference, even if supporters think a lot of undecided Republicans would vote “yes” if forced to.

“My job as whip is to give Leader McConnell an accurate count of where the conference is. Because he doesn’t want to put anything on the floor and be surprised,” Cornyn said. “A majority of the conference either whipped ‘no’ or ‘undecided.’ And we need to get those undecideds into the ‘yes’ column to get at least a majority of a majority in favor of the bill. And I think that will be persuasive.”

A GOP senator said that internally many Republicans are declining to take a firm position, making it more difficult to truly gauge support. Cornyn’s allies also believe Grassley and Lee are being overly optimistic in how they are reading backing for the bill.

But Cornyn’s influence alone could help Republicans get over the top given his reputation as a leader on the criminal justice issue.

“If they’re able to get it done it’s because, in part, he brought people on,” said one Republican senator, who estimated 20 of the GOP’s 51 members are locked in as supporters of the bill. “He’s one of the few who could.”

In some ways Cornyn is hamstrung by his role in leadership and deference to McConnell. But if there’s ever a time for him to exert his influence on a topic he’s passionate about, now might be his last, best shot.

“He’s part of leadership. And he probably has to do what leadership asks him to do,” Grassley said. “And I don’t know anything about that.”

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