President Obama met with members of the House and Senate who are leading the charge on justice reform in Congress. The 90 minute meeting took place yesterday in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Attending the meeting were Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy (D-VT), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and White House Counsel Neil Eggleston also attended the discussion. Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) were invited but did not attend.
Each member talked to the President for about three minutes expressing concerns, ideas and/or strategy on how to move forward and the meeting served as an update on the state of play on the fragile justice reform issue in Congress. Several members who attended confirmed that the issue of specific data on how various bills will impact incarceration was discussed. Both leading proposals that have been voted out of committee in the House and Senate, H.R. 3713 and S. 2123, include either new or expanded mandatory minimums (S. 2123) or “sentencing enhancements” (H.R. 3713).
On November 17, National Urban League President Marc Morial broke with other civil rights groups and wrote to Chairman Goodlatte stating, “as currently drafted, this bill will only exacerbate the current racial disparities in our criminal justice system and cannot be characterized as sentencing reform.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission has mysteriously skipped over analyzing how the punitive provisions in S. 2123 and H.R. 3713 would impact incarceration in their evaluations of both bills.
Two Senate Republicans spoke with Politic365 yesterday about the justice reform discussion with the President at the White House. The ranking Democrat of the House Crime Committee, Rep. Jackson Lee, declined comment.
“I think it was mostly a unity meeting. A meeting where everyone could express different views, but there aren’t very many different views. It was very positive: How do we get this job done. And the President wants to be very, very helpful,” said Chairman Grassley yesterday.
But a disagreement over the issue of criminal intent which may be added to H.R. 3713, the House justice bill, is an issue. Whether a mens rea bill, H.R. 4002, will be merged with H.R. 3713, the Sentencing Reform Act, remains to be seen. Some congressional Republicans believe they may not have the votes to pass a justice reform bill without the provision. Many Democrats believe the mens rea bill voted out of committee on November 16, H.R. 4002, is a gift to corporations.
When asked if he thought the President could veto a justice reform bill over the mens rea issue, Grassley said, “It’s an issue here with some members but it’s a big issue in the House. The Attorney General said she would try to see what she could do. It isn’t all or nothing. There’s ways of working around it and we’ll try to find [inaudible].”
Politic365 also asked Sen. Cornyn his impressions of the discussion.
“It was good. I think he was — he indicted how he could be helpful,” the Texas Republican said near the Senate floor yesterday. Cornyn is the author of the Corrections Act half of the Senate sentencing bill, S. 2123.
“A lot of us have been working on these issues for a long time. But it was interesting to hear the differences in approach between the House and the Senate. I think the House wants to go more broadly than the Senate but we don’t want to get so bogged down that we can’t get anything done,” said Cornyn.
“I told him that I though we should be prepared in the Senate to go to the Majority Leader and say ‘we have enough support here that we can get something done and make it available for floor action the first quarter of the year,'” Cornyn added.
On mens rea, Cornyn said, “I think that’s a sticking point and there’s a lot of people who understand the concept but there’s a lot of confusion and thus: division. Even though I would support making an explicit mens rea requirement I don’t want to kill this bill over that,” Cornyn added.
Members who attended said the President made no veto threat with regard to the mens rea issue (or any other issue) but was instead focused on what he could do to assist in the process moving forward in an effort to get something done.
According to those in attendance the President emphasized his willingness to support any legislation that takes even a small step in the right direction. There was little detailed discussion of the substance of various justice bills but the issue of specific data regarding how many people would be impacted by the leading legislation was discussed in part because both Grassley and Goodlatte’s legislation either adds or expands mandatory minimums or “sentencing enhancements.”
On Monday, December 7, there will be a meeting at the White House with justice reform advocates.