Seeking to stir support for a federal criminal justice bill, Sen. Rand Paul on Monday called on voters in the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to prod him to hold a vote on the measure.
Paul said during an appearance at the Louisville Urban League that the measure would pass overwhelmingly if it received a Senate vote during Congress' lame-duck session. But McConnell has refused to bring the legislation forward in a standoff that's dividing the Republican majority.
"We need the help of one person — the one person who has the power to allow this vote," Paul said, a reference to McConnell, his fellow Kentucky Republican. "And I'm not saying he's stopping it. But there is one person — he's from Louisville, he's fairly well-known. And he has the power to allow or disallow this vote. And I'm asking those in Louisville to call Sen. McConnell and say, 'Please let us have this vote.'"
Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, a social justice organization, immediately picked up on Paul's plea for constituents to reach out to the Senate leader's office.
"Everybody call Sen. McConnell's office," she said. "Ask him to allow them to vote" on the measure.
McConnell's office didn't immediately comment on Paul's remarks. Kentucky's senior senator has pointed to time constraints as Congress wraps up its work for the year and divisions among Senate Republicans as reasons the measure hasn't been voted on.
At an event last week, McConnell said the measure has bipartisan support but that within the Senate GOP membership, it is "extremely divisive." He indicated he didn't have the time to get it through the Senate this year but expressed confidence that the measure would pass next year, given its broad support.
Paul said the preference among the bill's supporters is to vote on it this month and not wait until next year.
"A lot of us who are for (the) criminal justice (bill) don't want to push it to January because we kind of have a carefully worked out compromise between Republicans and Democrats, and it's not always that often that we can get together and all agree on something," he told reporters.
Another possible option would be to try to attach the criminal justice provisions to a federal spending bill, Paul said.
"Those rumors are floating about and I think there's a possibility that it could be done," he said.
The criminal justice issue also stirred a recent tweet from President Donald Trump. The bill is a project of Trump's son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, and would be the biggest sentencing overhaul in decades.
"Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform," Trump tweeted. "It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support. It will also help a lot of people, save taxpayer dollars, and keep our communities safe. Go for it Mitch!"
The measure would reduce mandatory prison terms for certain drug crimes and give judges in some cases more discretion on punishments. It would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
Roughly 90 percent of prison inmates are held in state facilities and would not be affected by the legislation.
Senate opponents have said support for the measure has been exaggerated, and they also warn that Republicans would be blamed if a criminal is released and then reoffends.
Paul said he supports tough punishment for violent criminals but said many people don't deserve long jail sentences for drug dependency. He also said lawmakers need to fix the "great racial disparity" in terms of who gets locked up for drug crimes.