By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican lawmaker on the powerful U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee accused President Donald Trump's administration on Thursday of meddling with efforts to pass bipartisan legislation to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
In unusually strong and emotional language, Chairman Charles Grassley accused the White House of working behind the scenes to sign off on a letter Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent to Capitol Hill on Wednesday that slammed the bill as a "grave error" and staunchly opposed it.
"I just heard this morning that maybe this letter went through (Office of Management and Budget), so the White House approves it," Grassley said. "If they're involved in this letter," he continued, that "irritates me."
Grassley also took aim at Sessions, a former senator from Alabama and fellow Republican who before taking over the helm of the Justice Department in February 2017 helped to kill similar legislation.
An exasperated Grassley recounted how he backed Sessions' nomination as attorney general despite the fact he was "very controversial" and urged Trump not to fire Sessions, after Trump mused last year he regretted tapping Sessions because he is now recused from the investigation into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia.
"Considering the fact that the president wanted to fire him last spring and I went to his defense," Grassley said. "... He knows how hard it was to work out this compromise."
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior declined to comment, but a person familiar with the matter confirmed that the letter was reviewed by the White House before it was sent to Grassley.
The person added that not all letters from the Justice Department get a White House review. An OMB spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
The apparent White House sign-off on Sessions' letter now raises questions about prospects for the future of the bill, which enjoys wide bipartisan support among both conservative and liberal groups.
Despite Sessions' objections, the bill sailed through committee without any changes on Thursday, in a vote of 16-5.
The five Republicans who voted against it, however, signaled they might be willing to support it later if some changes are made.
Thursday marked the second time in the last two years that the Senate Judiciary Committee has tried to enact a prison and sentencing reform bill to ease prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and give federal judges more discretion over sentencing.
But the division between Sessions, the White House 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.
Grassley said on Thursday that Sessions is still trying to behave like a U.S. senator.
"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.
Democrat Patrick Leahy, meanwhile, echoed that sentiment.
"We are the committee of jurisdiction in the legislative branch," he said.
"We don't have to report to the Department of Justice."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)