January 10, 2017
WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats will challenge President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee over his hard-line stand on immigration, past record on civil rights and whether he supports community policing.
The Alabama lawmaker is known as one of the most staunchly conservative members of the Senate, and has already drawn opposition from at least two Democrats, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In a dramatic turn, Booker — one of three black senators — said he will testify against Sessions on Wednesday, marking a rare instance in which a senator has testified against a colleague seeking a Cabinet post. In a statement, Booker accused Sessions of having a "concerning" record on civil rights and criminal justice reform and called his decision "a call to conscience."
Democrats don't have the power to block Sessions' nomination since Republicans control the Senate and only need a simple majority to confirm the four-term senator. But they can use the two days of confirmation hearings beginning Tuesday to cast Sessions as out of the mainstream on issues critical to the party's core voters — Hispanics, African Americans and women — ahead of the 2018 election cycle.
A look at some issues that are expected to come up at the Sessions hearing:
Sessions has been a leading advocate not only for a cracking down on illegal immigration, but also for slowing all legal immigration, increasing mass deportations and giving more scrutiny to those entering the United States. He vehemently opposed the bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate passed in 2013 that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
The bill died in the House.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who worked with Republicans to craft the immigration legislation, indicated last week that he would have a hard time supporting Sessions, saying "he has been more anti-immigration than just about any other single member of Congress."
This will be the second time Sessions has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is currently a member. Three decades ago, the panel rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney "boy" — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American."
Democrats and civil liberties advocates have seized on his voting record and his appearances before groups that espouse harsh views on Muslims and immigrants. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said after his meeting with Sessions that "there are certainly elements in his background that raise questions."
Some Democrats say they are concerned that because Sessions was one of Trump's earliest supporters, he could have a hard time separating himself from the administration. The attorney general is traditionally obligated to be independent of politics when making legal decisions.
"It will come down to his independence, which is an essential, absolute prerequisite for an attorney general," said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Judiciary panel. Blumenthal said Sessions "has to be able to stand up to the president and say no."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, another Democrat on the Judiciary panel, voted against Sessions' 1986 nomination. He noted in a Boston Globe editorial on Monday that as a senator, Sessions has opposed legislation that would curb domestic violence and sexual assault.
Leahy said that survivors of sexual assault, religious bigotry and other crimes deserve to know they will be protected by the Justice Department. "Given the divisive rhetoric of the Republican nominee for president last year, many are worried," Leahy wrote.
Sessions has alarmed civil liberties advocates with his criticism of the Voting Rights Act, which he has said placed an unfair burden on states such as Alabama. He's raised concerns about voting fraud, which experts and current Justice Department leaders say is rare in U.S. elections.
"In the past, Sen. Sessions has been no friend of the Voting Rights Act," Schumer said last week. "And the attorney general is the protector of the Voting Rights Act."
Sessions was one of a handful of Republicans who opposed a bipartisan effort last year to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system. That put him at odds with some of his GOP colleagues on the committee, including Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Sessions warned that it could lead to the release of violent offenders.
As attorney general, he could undo a 2013 policy known as Smart on Crime that discouraged prosecutors from seeking harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenders.
Durbin and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, another Democrat on the panel, have both said they are concerned that Sessions will undo grant programs that provide resources for police departments to improve community relations and civil rights. Brown, the Ohio Democrat, who is not on the committee, cited those programs as a reason he would oppose Sessions.
Durbin said he had asked Sessions if he would support maintaining and increasing those programs, and "he was not prepared to make that commitment."
A frequent chant at Trump's campaign rallies was "lock her up," referring to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her use of a private email server. Trump said then he would have the attorney general appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, but immediately changed his tune after the campaign, saying it wasn't something he felt strongly about.