Why is Mitch McConnell blocking a bill backed by his own caucus?

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listens to reporters as they ask questions during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  REUTERS/Leah Millis

Mitch McConnell has always been a thorn in the Democrats’ side, but now he’s blocking a bill that the Republican House has already passed, and a majority of his Senate Republicans want to pass.

The First Step Act is a criminal justice reform bill that has wide support in the Senate. Senator Grassley, who has been pushing the legislation through the Senate, figures at least 80% of the Senate is on board. It goes without saying that Democrats, and groups like the ACLU are already on board.

The bill only affects the federal prison system, but it would do the following:
✦ reduces mandatory prison terms for certain nonviolent crimes
✦ includes provisions to encourage education and workforce training in prisons
✦ gives judges more discretion on punishments
✦ allows prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty
✦ rewards well-behaved inmates with credits to reduce their prison sentence

Not only are a majority of Senate Republicans on board, but so is Trump himself. He even tweeted in support of the bill and signed off saying “Go for it Mitch!” Jared Kushner made a rare public appearance on Hannity last night to stump for the bill. A wide variety of GOP Senators such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Tim Scott are on board.

Grassley is especially annoyed because he feels to some extent that McConnell owes it to him for delivering on two SCOTUS nominees and a long list of judicial picks.

But Mitch is not on board. In fact, only a few Senators seem to be behind Mitch publicly: Tom Cotton, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz. McConnell’s excuses–there isn’t enough time left in the session, he wants a supermajority of GOP Senators to be behind the bill–are just that, excuses.

So what gives?

What we know about Mitch McConnell is that he only cares about winning elections and staying in power. And guess who’s up for re-election in 2020. Yes indeedy, Mitch himself. The one thing McConnell has to worry about in Kentucky is a challenger from the far-right.

You remember the wackos that ran to the right of the Republican incumbents during the midterms. Mitch most likely doesn’t want to bring this bill up for a vote because it’s an uncomfortable vote for HIM. He’s worried that a challenger will say he’s soft on crime. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine that a challenger would paint Mitch as being soft on minorities, even though the facts show that 58% of federal prisoners are white.

In conclusion, Mitch McConnell isn’t going to bring a popular, bipartisan bill that addresses a crucial issue in America to the Senate floor because it might make his re-election slightly more difficult for himself. The will of the people doesn’t matter to McConnell, the will of his own caucus doesn’t matter to him, not even the GOP mega-donors the Kochs (who as much as we dislike them and their tactics have long pushed for criminal justice reform) can sway Mitch. He must win re-election and he will subvert our democracy to get it.

Update: The Hill just published an article saying that Mitch McConnell announced this morning that he will bring up the bill for a vote. Let’s see if he comes through.

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Categories: Explainers

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