By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top Republican lawmaker on the powerful U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee lashed out at fellow Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday, after Sessions slammed a bipartisan draft bill that would reduce prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
In unusually strong language, committee Chairman Charles Grassley said he was “irritated” by a letter Sessions sent on Wednesday condemning the legislation, which Grassley has championed and which has received wide bipartisan support.
Grassley’s comments came as the committee was preparing to edit and approve a sentencing reform bill that aims to lessen prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would give federal judges more discretion over sentencing.
Sessions, when he was a senator from Alabama on the committee, helped kill a similar version of the bill before he took over the helm of the Justice Department in February 2017.
“Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama,” Grassley said, referring to newly minted Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who bested Republican Roy Moore to win the seat that Sessions vacated.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately comment.
The division between Sessions and the Republican-led committee over the draft legislation signals a brewing political debate over reforms to the criminal justice system.
As a senator and now attorney general, Sessions’ criminal justice policy views have often been out of step with many of his fellow conservatives, and the American mainstream more broadly.
He is a champion of mandatory minimum sentences that many say disproportionately affect minority communities and wrongfully incarcerate low-level offenders for lengthy sentences.
He is also staunchly opposed to marijuana, and recently gave federal prosecutors the green light to pursue marijuana cases in states where the drug is legal.
But he has also faced challenges in the job, with President Donald Trump last year openly lamenting his decision to hire Sessions because of Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.
Grassley said on Thursday he was angry in part because he had defended Sessions when Trump attacked him.
He also accused the White House Office of Management and Budget of possibly having helped write or review the offending letter that Sessions sent.
An OMB spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)