Criminal justice overhaul advances amid Grassley-Sessions spat

A bipartisan criminal justice bill easily won approval from the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, amid a rare public clash on the plan between Chairman Chuck Grassley and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The legislation from Grassley (R-Iowa) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) cleared the Judiciary panel on a 16-5 vote. Six of the panel’s 10 Republicans joined every Democrat in backing it despite pointed opposition from Sessions that left Grassley infuriated.

But it’s unclear whether its relatively strong showing will give the legislation any better chance of getting floor time in the Senate. Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — who had supported the criminal justice overhaul before President Donald Trump took office — opposes this year’s iteration and would prefer to see progress on a narrower prison reform measure.

Cornyn urged his colleagues Thursday to focus on the alternate bill "that we can actually get a presidential [on] and pass it into law."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Cornyn’s partner on the smaller-scale prison reform bill, aligned himself with both options Thursday. "I will travel either road, whichever one works, to get us to a bill that we can pass," he said.

Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also opposed the legislation, which would ease some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders while creating new, stiffer penalties for other types of criminal offenses.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) joined Grassley and the Democrats in supporting the bill. The last time the criminal justice reform proposal was considered in the committee — in 2015, with support from the Obama administration — it received the same number of GOP opponents.

Tillis’ decision to vote yes, despite concerns that prevented him from cosponsoring the bill, was viewed as a good sign by advocates of the proposal who considered him a bellwether. The harsh public opposition that Sessions delivered to his former Judiciary Committee colleagues on Wednesday, warning that the criminal justice bill could deposit "the very worst criminals back into our communities," had sparked worries about more GOP defections.

“Today’s vote shows that Attorney General Sessions largely stands alone here, separate from the majority of his party and the American public, who support criminal justice reform," Inimai Chettiar, director of New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in an email.

But Grassley acknowledged in a Wednesday interview that the legislation is still facing resistance from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who "doesn’t want to bring it up."

During the last Congress, Grassley recalled, McConnell was hesitant to give floor time to the criminal justice bill because of the high number of Republican senators in tough reelection races.

"He doesn’t have that problem now," Grassley said. "We only have 10 Republican senators up [for reelection in November]. This bill can easily get 60 votes."

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