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Leadership test

November 21, 2018

As senators scatter to the 50 states to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, we wish them the very best that the homiest of our holidays can offer. It’s too soon for stockings on the mantel, but we’re hoping they’ll find plenty of rest and whatever else they need to return to Washington with vigor and wisdom.

They are going to need both as they confront a once-in-a-generation opportunity - fleeting, but real - to reform the federal criminal justice system, an effort that liberals and conservatives have been working on together for many years.

That is, if only the reformers can persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give them a vote on an improved version of the First Step Act. He’s been hedging, even though a House version of the bill has already passed overwhelmingly. The bolder version alive in the Senate has been embraced by leading GOP senators and by President Donald Trump.

The First Step Act aims to reform our criminal justice system in two major ways. It looks to offer inmates better and more opportunities to get ready to lead productive lives when they are released. That’s the part the House passed overwhelmingly earlier this year.

The other part of the reform was stripped out of the House bill but has now been revived in the Senate. It deals with sentencing changes and would begin to slowly reduce the number of federal inmates, especially among those convicted of nonviolent offenses. This is badly needed. As Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, likes to say, if it’s good to be tough on crime, it’s even better to be smart on crime.

The sentencing changes are modest, and probably would give only a few thousand inmates an opportunity to leave prison early. Given that our federal prison population peaked at just under 220,000 in 2013, up from about 25,000 in 1980, those numbers are small.

But we’ve long felt that we ought to take what reforms we can get. So, when the House passed the First Step Act without the sentencing reforms, we were disappointed. But we agreed with Cornyn, who said some reform was better than none. We urged support for the House version of the bill.

It turns out, others in the Senate weren’t ready to give up on a bolder, better bill. For that, we’re grateful.

An iron-clad conservative in his seventh term, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had for years opposed sentencing reforms. But since becoming judiciary chairman in 2015, he’s spent more time listening to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, about how unfair the federal sentencing laws can be.

In an interview Tuesday, he told the Chronicle editorial board that he’s been fully converted, and refused to give up on the dream of a bolder set of reforms just because the House had stripped them out. He sawed off some of the more liberal provisions Durbin and Lee had championed and settled on what he believed was a smart compromise.

After the House passed the First Step Act, he dug in his heels in the hopes of giving reformers in the Senate time to improve the bill.

The extra time paid off last week. Trump said he’ll support the stronger bill, immediately upping its profile. Conservative think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation are on board, too.

Grassley told us as many as 10 or so conservative members of the Senate remain opposed. And given how vocal some of them have been -- Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is an example - McConnell may be reluctant to call a vote if it will trigger a public split in his caucus.

That’s put Cornyn, the majority whip, in the middle. “I think his role in the leadership has given him the responsibility to be pragmatic,” Grassley said. “But I want his support. I think we’ll have it, if we can show him we’ll have the votes.”

Cornyn has supported the more robust reforms. But he also knows if Cotton and company can’t be converted, McConnell may simply kill the bill. Perhaps if he can win over Cotton, he can win over McConnell.

But by ceding so much ground to Cotton, Cornyn risks blowing a rare opportunity.

Instead, he and the other reformers should hang tough, and not let holdouts like Cotton weaken the bill any further. McConnell has indicated that if the votes are there for the bill, he’ll let it come to the floor.

When the holiday is over, Cornyn will be busy counting those votes. He’s the whip, after all, and we hope he’ll use it to convince his GOP colleagues to get smart on crime and back a bill that has been years in the making.

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