Three of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ fellow congressmen took the unusual step of testifying against his nomination to be attorney general Wednesday, arguing in blistering terms that Sessions would roll back civil rights as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and a leader in the civil rights movement, said Sessions’ call for “law and order” sounded similar to what he heard growing up in Alabama from pro-segregation officials who wanted to prevent black people from voting.
“I was born in rural Alabama, not very far from where Sen. Sessions was raised,” Lewis said. “And there was no way to escape or deny the chokehold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us.”
Lewis outlined in emotional terms the fight activists put up to pressure Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act into law, and said he did not believe Sessions would fight to protect those rights.
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you,” Lewis said. “We need someone who is going to stand up, speak up, and speak out for the people that need help for people who’ve been discriminated against.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who became the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague’s nomination Wednesday, also said he was bothered by Sessions’ emphasis on law and order. “America was founded heralding not law and order, but justice for all,” Booker said. “Law and order without justice is unobtainable. They are inextricably tied together.”
The congressmen’s testimony occasionally showed the tension their decision to speak out against one of their own had created. Booker said some of his colleagues were “unhappy” with him for breaching Senate etiquette with his decision to testify. “I believe in the choice between standing with Senate norms and standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized Booker’s testimony on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.
.@CoryBooker attacks on Jeff Sessions are so far-fetched I half-expected his make-believe friend T-Bone to be next witness.
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) January 11, 2017
Meanwhile, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana dedicated part of his testimony to protesting Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Judiciary Committee, for placing their panel at the very end of Sessions’ two-day hearing.
“To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights [hero] testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” Richmond said.
A spokesman for Grassley said the members’ request to testify came after the hearing schedule was set, so the senator believed it was fair for them to go last.
“Each and every senator who casts a vote to confirm Sen. Sessions will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator in an effort to move this country backwards toward a darker period in our shared history,” Richmond added.
Three African-American witnesses supporting Sessions also shared the panel with the congressmen. “After 20 years of knowing Sen. Sessions I have not seen the slightest evidence of racism because it does not exist,” said William Smith, a former counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Willie Huntley, who worked under Sessions as a prosecutor in the 1980s, said Sessions never demonstrated “racial insensitivity.”
U.S. senators sometimes sail through confirmation hearings based on their rapport with colleagues. But Sessions, an early endorser of President-elect Donald Trump during the campaign, faces resistance from Democrats and others critical of some of his past statements and actions revolving around race. Still, it’s likely he will be confirmed, given that Democrats are in the minority in the Senate.
Sessions called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” in the past — though he voted to reauthorize it under President George W. Bush — and unsuccessfully prosecuted activists signing up black voters for voter fraud in the 1980s. In his testimony Tuesday, Sessions said he pursued that case at the request of black leaders in Alabama, and emphasized his role prosecuting Klan members for the murder of a black teenager. Sessions also testified that he would fight to protect all Americans’ rights and that he would uphold all laws, even those he disagreed with, such as the right to obtain a legal abortion.
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