I am a fan of Senator Mike Lee’s justice reform efforts in Congress. They’re solid ideas, and they will make a difference. I appreciate his efforts to find ways to create conservative and pragmatic solutions to big problems. He’s a serious-minded policy maker, and his efforts to reform the justice system could be significant.
Senator Ted Cruz, however, was not a fan of Lee’s justice reform bill. Despite writing that no one stood by him “more courageously or indispensably” than Lee during his 21-hour anti-Obamacare speech that preceded the 2013 government shutdown, Cruz was willing to blind side his ally and friend when it was politically convenient. How he responded when Lee presented the bill in large part demonstrates why Cruz is unpopular with his colleagues in the US Senate. Molly Ball tells the story in The Atlantic:
“When Lee brought up his bill in the committee hearing, he wasn’t sure if he’d have Cruz’s support. But he certainly didn’t anticipate what came next.”
“Cruz attacked the bill as dangerous and politically poisonous. He said it would lead to more than 7,000 federal prisoners let out on the street. “I for one, at a time when police officers across this country are under assault right now, being vilified right now, when we’re seeing violent crime spiking in our cities across the country, I think it would be a serious mistake for the Senate to pass legislation providing for 7,082 criminals to be released early,” he said. The bill, he claimed, “could result in more violent criminals being let out on the streets, and potentially more lives being lost.”
“Cruz went on to warn his fellow senators that if they voted for the bill, they would imperil their careers. “We know to an absolute certainty that an unfortunately high percentage of those offenders will go and commit subsequent crimes,” he said. “And every one of us who votes to release violent criminals from prison prior to the expiration of their sentence can fully expect to be held accountable by our constituents.” Essentially, Cruz was saying that the legislation would let dangerous people out of prison, they would commit more crimes, and the senators would be subject to Willie Horton-style attack ads.
“Lee, who was sitting right next to Cruz, could not believe what he was hearing. The bill, he responded, wouldn’t actually release any violent criminals from prison, and its sentence reduction for gun crimes was to reduce the minimum for felons caught with guns or ammunition from 15 years to 10 years—a provision that had once sent a man to prison for 15 years when he picked up a stray bullet in order to clean a carpet. “It is simply incorrect to say that this suddenly releases a bunch of violent criminals. It is tougher on violent offenders,” Lee sputtered. “That statement is inaccurate…. We’re not letting out violent offenders. That is false.”
If Cruz can’t figure out how to find common ground, even with his conservative friends, what will he do when the time comes to govern? While Cruz has been on occasion difficult to work with, I have been, and still am willing, to give him the benefit of the doubt. There are issues that deserve a fight, and Cruz has proved, if nothing else, that he will fight.
But can he pick and choose his battles? Can he be a leader who can govern?
He still hasn’t proven the case, yet, and until he does, I think he’ll be limited to a small portion of the Republican Party for his base.