Sen. Jeff Sessions will face tough questions from Democrats over his record on civil rights, race relations, immigration and other issues in two days of hearings on his nomination to be attorney general.
Democrats are targeting eight of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations, but Sessions’ hearing could be the most contentious of the lot, with a fellow senator taking the unprecedented step of testifying against him.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, will speak out against Sessions Wednesday, becoming the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator in a confirmation hearing. Booker said he decided to take this step because of Sessions’ comments criticizing parts of the Voting Rights Act and his recent opposition to criminal justice reform and immigration reform.
“I do not take lightly the decision to testify against a Senate colleague,” Booker said in a statement. “But the immense powers of the attorney general combined with the deeply troubling views of this nominee is a call to conscience.”
Booker is scheduled to testify alongside civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Thirty years ago, Sessions’ bid to become a district judge failed in the Senate over accusations that he called a black lawyer “boy” — Sessions denied this — and called the American Civil Liberties Union “un-American.” As a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, Sessions also unsuccessfully brought charges for voting fraud against an activist who was registering black voters. He has criticized the Voting Rights Act, although he voted to reauthorize it in 2006.
Sessions will produce witnesses who will speak to his record of supporting civil rights over his long career, according to Ken Blackwell, the Trump transition team’s domestic policy chief. Sessions was pictured holding hands with Lewis in a commemorative march in Selma in 2015.
“We will not allow them to ‘Bork’ him,” Blackwell said — referring to the Democratic torpedoing of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 — “no matter how sophisticated they think their effort to define and to destroy his exemplary public record is.”
There are just 48 Democrats in the Senate, and it’s unlikely the minority party would scoop up the three Republican defections needed to block Sessions’ nomination. (Also, some Democrats may end up backing Sessions — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already thrown his support behind him.) Still, Democrats can use the hearing to air their concerns about Sessions, who was a close adviser to Trump throughout the campaign, and make the argument that his views are outside of the mainstream.
Sessions will also likely face questions about whether he will keep the Justice Department independent of the White House so that it does not become an investigatory arm of the president, and senators will seek assurance that he will look into allegations of wrongdoing within the executive branch. Most of the rules preventing the Justice Department’s politicization are not laws, but policies that can be changed by an incoming administration, according to Politico’s Isaac Arnsdorf. While on the campaign trail, Trump vowed to throw Hillary Clinton in jail when he became president, but he has since said he’s not interested in prosecuting his former rival. Democrats are keen to find out whether Sessions would say no to a White House request to prosecute a political enemy, for example.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters Monday that he planned to ask Sessions about whether he would adequately enforce the nation’s gun laws to ensure that felons cannot purchase weapons. Sessions has an A-plus rating from the NRA.
Immigration will also likely be a hot-button topic during the hearing. Sessions has consistently favored tightening legal immigration and deporting illegal immigrants. He helped kill bipartisan efforts to reform the immigration system and offer some undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship in 2013. He’s also questioned whether people born in the United States should automatically be granted citizenship under the 14th Amendment.
“I’ll be asking about immigration issues, particularly related to the religious test that his prospective boss has suggested — the Muslim registry,” Blumenthal said. The senator said he will focus on “areas where I think he is clearly out of the mainstream.”
Carrie Severino, policy director at the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said she believes Sessions will enforce immigration laws more aggressively than the Obama administration did.
“People realize we do need to enforce our immigration laws,” Severino said. “Sessions is someone who’s committed his life to the rule of law.”