It will be up to Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the influential chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the lead author of the bill, to try to change Mr. McConnell’s mind, and he suggested that President Trump’s desire for legislative accomplishments could help sway the leader.
“I would hope that it would be this easy: that our president is going to be looking for things that can get broad bipartisan support so that he can have victories,” Mr. Grassley said in an interview. “Not just partisan victories but bipartisan victories. This could get broad bipartisan support.”
Mr. Grassley’s attempt to revive the legislation has slowly been gaining momentum in recent months, though it has attracted little of the fanfare that accompanied the previous effort. Thursday’s vote, for example, was eclipsed by a high-stakes debate consuming the Senate over the nation’s immigration laws.
A small group of Republicans on the committee, including Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, opposed the bill. Mr. Cornyn was one of the foremost advocates of similar legislation in the last Congress, but he has come to believe that a narrower set of changes to prisons is more realistic than a sweeping sentencing overhaul.
Mr. Grassley’s legislation, which so far has the support of more than 20 Democrats and Republicans, would significantly reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and institute a new system for determining which offenders would be eligible for early release. It would also create programs to better prepare them to return to life out of prison.
“Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, the lead Democratic author, said in a statement after the vote. “In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety.”
The plan has support from groups as ideologically diverse as the billionaire conservatives Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union, and its authors expect it could easily win majorities in both chambers of Congress if given a vote.
But it runs against the prevailing philosophy of the Trump administration and, in particular, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Sessions, who was instrumental in derailing the 2015 effort when he was still in the Senate, has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences for crime suspects, reversing Obama-era efforts to ease such penalties for some nonviolent drug offenders. Many Republicans in the House and Senate agree with that philosophy.
The conflict was laid bare on Wednesday when Mr. Sessions wrote a letter to Mr. Grassley calling the bill “a grave error” that would put more dangerous criminals back on the streets and tie up resources needed to fight violent crime and gang action.
“Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences,” he wrote.
The letter pushed Mr. Grassley, who has shouldered the legislation for three years, into a rare fury. He wrote on Twitter that he was “incensed” and told reporters that he resented the attorney general trying to tell a senator — especially one who guided his confirmation proceedings despite Democratic support — how to write the law.
“Do you realize that he’s carrying out laws? He’s no longer a senator,” Mr. Grassley said. “That letter sounds just exactly like he still thinks he’s a senator.”
Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition advocating an overhaul, said that urgency had only grown since 2015, largely because of the opioid crisis that has ravaged communities across the country.
“Criminal justice reform is only controversial in one place in this country, and that’s Washington, D.C.,” she said, urging Republican leaders to move forward with the bill.
“There is a high expectation across the country that Republicans will be supportive of these reforms,” she added. “Any effort by the opposition will not be well received not just by progressives but by conservatives, as well.”
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