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Prison reform effort backed by Trump, Kushner hits Senate wall after cruising through House

A prison reform bill that White House senior adviser Jared Kushner helped move forward faces significant opposition in the Senate. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After President Donald Trump called for Congress to give him a prison reform bill to sign, the House passed the First Step Act by an overwhelming 360-59 vote. However, the bill faces a much more complicated future as the Senate takes on the issue.

The conflict is between a companion bill to the First Step Act introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and a competing bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

"We're going to take up my bill," Grassley told The Hill. "Or should I say, my bipartisan bill that's got 28 co-sponsors — equal number Republicans and Democrats. ... What the House does through that legislation (The First Step Act) is about the equivalent of a spit in the ocean compared to what the problem is of too much imprisonment."

What's the story?

The First Step Act is a bill that addresses high recidivism rates and over-incarceration by enacting policies to better prepare incarcerated individuals for productive re-entry into society upon their release. The bill notably does not include sentencing reform, which is a sticking point for some in Congress who believe it doesn't go far enough.

Jessica Jackson Sloan is the national director and co-founder of #cut50 and someone who has worked closely with lawmakers and senior adviser Jared Kushner to push the First Step Act forward. She said the immense support the bill got in the House should serve as a signal to senators.

"Like all politics, it's about compromise, right?" Sloan told TheBlaze on Wednesday. "There was a very strong vote on the House bill, and I think a lot of senators are going to look at that and realize that there is an appetite to do prison reform and then come back around and do sentencing reform."

Hung up on sentencing reform

Grassley, in a bill co-authored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), is pushing prison reform paired with changes in sentencing, including a reduction of mandatory minimums for drug and other offenses.

Sentencing reform in a non-starter for many Republicans, and Grassley conceded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not yet ready to bring the bill to the Senate floor.

"You've got to remember that McConnell doesn't like the bill, and all I can say is that you ought to let a Republican president who needs a big, bipartisan victory have a bipartisan victory," Grassley said, according to The Hill.

Meanwhile, Sloan says that's exactly what the First Step Act presents to the president and lawmakers ahead of midterms.

"Obviously, the midterms put some pressure on us to go ahead and get something done, but I think this can be a win for everybody to be able to go back to their districts and say 'Congress is not broken, Congress is actually getting things done on a bipartisan level,'" Sloan told TheBlaze.

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