Sen. Cory Booker is signing on as an original backer of the criminal justice package backed by President Donald Trump, giving the deal valuable momentum with Democrats even as it splits the Senate GOP.
Booker’s support for the carefully-crafted agreement to overhaul prison and sentencing laws also puts him in rare alignment with a president whom he’s openly considering challenging in 2020. But the New Jersey Democrat said his decision to endorse the deal — which backers are pushing to vote on during this year’s lame-duck session — has nothing to do with those considerations.
“I don’t give a damn about politics when thousands of people are incarcerated unjustly,” Booker told POLITICO on Thursday. “This is about people, this is about justice, this is about righting wrongs. And this bill does a lot in that.”
The final agreement, released by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) late Thursday, also includes a key priority of Booker’s: bipartisan legislation he’s spearheaded that would largely end the practice of juvenile solitary confinement on the federal level. While the criminal justice legislation faces major obstacles in the divided Senate Republican conference, where Arkansas’ Tom Cotton is opposed to its easing of some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, Booker’s early thumbs-up is poised to help solidify Democratic votes.
Booker said he would “start reaching out to our caucus” to corral support for the final agreement, and “I imagine we’re going to have a lot of success in getting people on board.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), whom Booker credited as their party’s lead negotiator, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also endorsed the criminal justice agreement as original Democratic cosponsors. Other prominent liberal senators weighing a 2020 presidential run, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have yet to formally endorse it.
Warren has said that she’s still looking at the details of the final agreement, which took shape on Thursday as most senators left Washington to travel home for the Thanksgiving recess. “I’m in favor of comprehensive criminal justice reform. My only question is, is this big enough?” the Massachusetts Democrat said on Wednesday.
The legislation includes only a handful of sentencing provisions from a broader criminal justice reform package negotiated on a bipartisan basis during the Obama administration.
But the House passed a narrower bill earlier this year that only tackled prisons, not sentencing, despite criticism from multiple progressive and civil rights groups that pushed for the inclusion of sentencing changes. Booker, Harris and Durbin joined Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other progressive lawmakers in opposing the prisons-only legislation, slamming it as “a step backwards.”
Booker and Durbin later joined efforts to begin “negotiating back in the sentencing components,” as Booker put it. And the leader of one prominent civil rights group, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal statement on the criminal justice deal, hailed both Democratic senators’ work as vital to restarting momentum for what became Thursday’s announced agreement.
Indeed, Trump’s endorsement of a compromise with sentencing changes marked a key victory for advocacy groups that had pushed for progress to no avail earlier in his administration. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has remained skeptical about whether the chamber has time to take up the legislation before year’s end, leaving its passage very much in doubt.
“This is not a perfect bill,” Booker acknowledged. “But I’m not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good when the lives of thousands of people hang in the balance.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine