Facing an onslaught of opposition from Democratic lawmakers concerned about his civil rights record, Sen. Jeff Sessions insisted Tuesday that he would fight discrimination if confirmed as the next U.S. attorney general under President-elect Donald Trump.
“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his prepared remarks.
“I have witnessed it,” the Alabama Republican said, adding, “I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by the LGBT community.”
Sessions becomes the first of Trump’s Cabinet contenders to begin what is expected to be a combative confirmation process over the next two weeks.
Republicans have loaded the Senate calendar with nomination hearings, scheduling at least eight over the next three days, and Democrats have promised to fight many of the contenders, focusing on what they say is inadequate vetting and potential conflicts with the nominees’ business holdings.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee himself, Sessions has participated in five nomination hearings for previous attorneys general. But this time Sessions won’t be asking the tough questions; the 70-year-old Republican will be in the hot seat as Trump’s choice to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Sessions also told the committee in his prepared remarks that he would aggressively investigate and prosecute drug dealers, criminal gangs and “those who repeatedly violated our borders.” The senator said he would work to strengthen ties between federal and local law enforcement officers to better tackle rising violence in some cities and the nation’s heroin epidemic.
Sessions is widely expected to win confirmation from his colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate. No sitting U.S. senator has ever been rejected for a Cabinet position.
Yet Sessions, who is considered one of Congress’ most conservative members, has a long and complicated history on racial matters. His nomination has met stiff resistance from civil rights groups, who worry that he will not fairly and aggressively enforce civil rights laws.
“Sen. Sessions is too divisive, too extreme and incapable of protecting the interests and safety of all Americans,” Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.
Democrats are also sure to aggressively question him about his views on voter ID laws, police misconduct, immigration and terrorism.
It will not be the first time Sessions has been before the committee as a nominee. In 1986, his nomination to be a federal judge was blocked by the committee amid questions about his prosecution of civil rights advocates on voter fraud charges and allegations he had made racially insensitive remarks.
Sessions was born in rural Alabama, attended segregated schools and graduated from Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. He spent a year as a teacher at a public school before earning his law degree in 1973 from the University of Alabama.
He served as President Reagan’s U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., from 1981 through 1993. He was elected in 1994 to be Alabama’s attorney general. After serving for two years in that post, he won a Senate campaign and has served in the chamber ever since. He was the first senator to endorse Trump’s presidential bid and has been described as one of the mogul’s closest advisors.
|Sen. Jeff Sessions (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)|
Why can GOP steamroll through confirmation hearings? Why not?
This week the Senate will undertake a frenzy of confirmation hearings for Donald Trump's cabinet appointees, with five nominees getting their hearings on a single day — this Wednesday.
Democrats are complaining that Republicans are mounting so many hearings simultaneously to make it difficult for the opposition to mount an effective critique of any one of the nominees. That's not to mention the fact that ethics reviews and background checks haven't been completed for many of them, which is traditionally done before nominees have confirmation hearings.
In addition, Trump himself is supposed to hold his first press conference since July on that very same day.
That press conference might not happen -- Trump has put it off before, since answering questions isn't his thing. But if it does it will utterly dominate the news, and in all likelihood allow Trump's nominees to get confirmed without too much negative attention.
This is a relatively minor bit of procedural gamesmanship on the Republicans' part, but it illustrates an important shift taking place now that they are about to take over the White House. One constant remains, however: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, has a profound and subtle understanding of how Americans view "Washington," and what that view lets him and his colleagues get away with.
Over the last eight years, McConnell and congressional Republicans have blown up one norm after another, casting off the habits and expectations that allow our government to operate in something resembling an efficient fashion, all with the goal of grinding that government to a halt.
What if we filibustered just about every bill? What if we threatened not to increase the debt ceiling, basically threatening global economic collapse if we don't get what we want? What if we shut down the government? What if we just refused to consider the president's nominee to the Supreme Court until we get a president from our party?
Every time they've asked those questions, their answer to themselves has been, "Why not?"
McConnell apparently has realized that while Democrats might be outraged and Republicans might be criticized in sternly worded editorials, the GOP wouldn't pay much of a price with the voters. Most Americans don't pay close attention to politics, and all they'd see is Washington dysfunction.
Even if the approval rating of the Republican Party might suffer (these days it's in the 30s), in the end voters would mostly punish the president, whether it was his fault or not. And it worked: Democrats cried "Obstructionists!" but Republicans still took the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
But now the calculation has flipped. Now that the president is a Republican, that willingness to steamroll procedural niceties is going to be wielded to keep things moving along, not to throw sand in government's gears. So Republicans will do whatever it takes to get Trump's nominations confirmed and get their legislation passed, no matter how much Democrats say they're doing it in unfair ways.
As we enter the Trump era, it will probably appear to voters as if the Republicans are indeed "getting things done," just like they promised. Nominees will be quickly confirmed, a boatload of bills will be passed and signed, and Republicans will say that at long last, Washington is working again.
The only hope Democrats have is to draw attention to the actual things Republicans are getting done with their total control of government. Fortunately for the opposition, the top items on the Republican agenda -- snatching away health coverage from tens of millions of Americans, cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing environmental regulations -- are widely unpopular.
But while drawing attention to the detrimental effects of those measures may score political points, it's small comfort if you've lost the policy battle.
The Democrats don't have any illusions that they can stop any of Trump's cabinet nominees. With Republicans enjoying a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, a nominee would need to be rejected by at least three Republican senators to be voted down. Unless a nominee bites the head off a live bat during their testimony, that won't happen (and maybe not even then).
But Democrats would like to educate the public about what they're in for with a Trump administration, both in the collection of billionaires and Wall Streeters filling out the cabinet and in the substance of what they'll be pursuing.
At the moment, Democrats have a limited collection of tools at their disposal to gum up the works the way Republicans did (the filibuster remains alive -- for now, anyway). Republicans are going to win most of the procedural battles. So Democrats will be left to hope they can focus the public's attention on substance. It won't be an easy task.