Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley hit back hard at Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday after his former Senate colleague launched a preemptive strike on his criminal justice bill.
The legislation, which Grassley has worked on for more than two years, is expected to win committee approval Thursday. But it faces a tough climb to the Senate floor amid reluctance from GOP leaders and conservative resistance. Sessions, who opposed the reform effort during his time on the Judiciary panel, piled on Wednesday with a letter warning that the bipartisan proposal “risks putting the very worst criminals back into our communities.”
Grassley responded with a powerful brushback pitch to the attorney general.
“It’s Senator Sessions talking, not a person whose job it is to execute law, and quite frankly I’m very incensed,” he told POLITICO.
What Sessions’ letter “doesn’t recognize here,” Grassley added, “and why I’m incensed about it look at how hard it was for me to get him through committee in the United States Senate. And look at, when the president was going to fire him, I went to his defense.”
The Iowa Republican said “all kinds of” potentially polarizing Justice Department nominees who have proven “very difficult to get through the United States Senate” have also landed in his lap as chief of the influential Judiciary Committee.
“If he wanted to do this,” Grassley said of Sessions, “he should have done what people suggested to him before: resign from attorney general and run for the Senate in Alabama again. We’d have a Republican senator.”
Grassley was referring to the special election for the Senate seat Sessions vacated to become President Donald Trump’s attorney general. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) ultimately won after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with minors against GOP nominee Roy Moore. Republican leaders considered asking Sessions to join the race as a write-in candidate in a bid to save the seat for their party. Sessions has also had a tumultuous time in the Trump administration, at one point reportedly offering his resignation.
The criminal justice bill, which Grassley negotiated alongside Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), counts co-sponsorship from 18 other senators, evenly distributed between the parties. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who supported the broader reform effort in the previous Congress, has shifted his focus this year to a narrower prison reform measure that he has said has a better chance of Trump signing into law.
But Grassley hasn’t abandoned the push to win floor time for the legislation, which would ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent offenders and end the required life sentence for some repeat drug offenders. Other elements of the proposal would create new mandatory minimum sentences for other categories of offense and bolster punishment for those convicted of trafficking in drugs containing the opioid fentanyl.
Grassley disputed Sessions’ characterization of the criminal justice reform bill in his Wednesday letter as bringing "potentially dire consequences" for efforts to fight the nationwide opioid epidemic.
"I agree with Sessions that mandatory minimums are important, and we don’t touch that," the Iowan said.
Sessions’ critique of the legislation "makes it sound like these guys are going to be out on the streets as soon as the judge makes the decision," Grassley added. "So he can have his strong position, and I can have my position that brings a little bit of fairness to it."
Grassley also tweeted his frustration with Sessions Wednesday. Asked for a comment, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the letter from the attorney general would suffice.