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Erin Murphy

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is about to leave the Senate Judiciary Committee with a bang.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, announced this week that he would schedule a floor vote on the criminal justice reform proposal that Grassley has been pushing for years.

The bill would reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons, provide more sentencing discretion for judges, and aims to lower the rate of offenders returning to prison after being released, according to Grassley’s office.

The bill has been called the most significant sentencing reform in decades and has strong bipartisan support.

But McConnell had held off on scheduling a floor vote until this week when he relented, saying he did so at least partially at the behest of President Donald Trump.

Grassley next year will step down as chairman of the Judiciary Committee --- through which the criminal justice reform bill passed --- to become chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

If indeed the criminal justice reform bill passes the Senate and House --- Speaker Paul Ryan says it will --- and makes it to Trump’s desk, it will be a significant legislative achievement for Grassley as he steps aside as Judiciary Committee chair.

Grassley was lukewarm to the criminal justice reform legislation early in its lifespan, but over time became a vocal proponent.

"Over the last several years, we’ve expanded support for comprehensive criminal justice reform by listening to stakeholders and lawmakers to strike a balance that reduces crime and recidivism, and the associated taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous and career criminals face steep consequences for their actions," Grassley said this week in a statement. "I appreciate the engagement from many of my colleagues to fine tune the most significant criminal justice reform in a generation, and I applaud President Trump and the White House for bringing everyone to the table to make this happen.”

Ernst race leans red

In Iowa, it’s never too soon to start thinking about the next election.

Just ask U.S. Rep.-elect Cindy Axne, who has not even been sworn in and this week sent out a fundraising email for her re-election campaign noting political forecaster have rated Iowa’s 3rd District a toss-up in 2020.

And speaking of those forecasts, Iowa’s 2020 U.S. Senate race has been given an early "leans Republican" rating by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a product of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, will be running for re-election for the first time against a to-be-determined Democrat.

"(Ernst) was an impressive 2014 winner, and Trump would start as a favorite to carry the state again assuming he’s nominated after winning by a surprisingly large nine-point margin in 2016," Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik wrote. "That said, Iowa also elected two new Democratic House members in November, giving Democrats a three-to-one edge in the House delegation."

Kondik raises the possibility that Tom Vilsack, the former two-term Iowa governor and U.S. agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, could run against Ernst.

As for the overall Senate race, Kondik suggests Republicans go into the election cycle as the favorite to maintain their advantage, but there is a path for Democrats to earn a majority, especially if the Democratic presidential candidate wins and has some coattails.

Hail to the chiefs

Not the football team. Sorry about that one, Kansas City fans.

Grassley and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds have new chiefs of staff.

Aaron Cummings will be Grassley’s new chief of staff starting Jan. 2, 2019, Grassley’s office announced this week.

Cummings has been working on Grassley’s judiciary committee staff. He replaces Jill Kozeny, who has worked with Grassley since 1989.

Reynolds’ new chief of staff is Sara Craig Gongol, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 Iowa caucus campaign who consulted on Reynolds’ 2018 campaign, Reynolds’ office announced this week.

Craig Gongol replaces Ryan Koopmans, who is leaving to pursue opportunities outside state government, Reynolds’ office said.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.