No Snags for Sessions at Confirmation Opening

No Snags for Sessions at Confirmation Opening
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Republican senators on Tuesday heaped praise on their colleague Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. attorney general, sending a strong signal that the Alabama lawmaker is likely to pass muster in the full Senate.

Democrats, skeptical of Sessions on issues ranging from civil rights to immigration to abortion and same-sex marriage, questioned him carefully on his tenure both as a senator and U.S. attorney and appeared to be mostly opposed to his confirmation.

In the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions offered some insight into how he would run the Department of Justice, suggesting he would remain independent from the White House and would not be a “rubber stamp” for Donald Trump. He added he would be willing to stand up to the president if he proposed something Sessions considered illegal, going as far as to say he would resign rather than execute an unlawful policy.

Sessions didn’t back away from his conservative positions on many issues: He vowed to crack down on “the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism,” expressed his concern about rising crime rates, said he would prosecute those who violate U.S. borders, and indicated he would try to help local police work more effectively with their communities. 

He also promised to recuse himself from any investigation dealing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because of his role in last year’s heated presidential campaign.

The hearing -- the first for a Trump Cabinet nominee -- lasted more than eight hours, with some senators taking as many as three rounds to question their colleague. It was punctuated by numerous interruptions from protesters, two dozen of whom were arrested by Capitol Police for their outbursts.

Sessions’ nomination has been considered one of the most controversial of Trump’s Cabinet, particularly since the Judiciary Committee once rejected him for a federal judgeship because of allegations of racial bias. Sessions, both in his opening statement and in responses to questions, pushed back hard on those allegations.

“These are damnably false charges,” he said during an opening statement.

He addressed the issue again when questioned by the committee’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “This caricature of me, in 1986, was not correct,” he said. “… I did not harbor the kind of animosity and race-based discrimination ideas I was accused of. I did not."

In their questioning, Republicans leaned on their personal relationships with Sessions, saying they know his policies and character from years of working with him in the upper chamber. Many said they were willing to support him, even before asking their questions. Democrats, on the other hand, made clear that while they had collegial relations with Sessions in the Senate, they were evaluating his fitness for attorney general. Many of them brought up his past votes on issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and the Violence Against Women Act.

Democrats also pushed Sessions on whether he would uphold laws he disagreed with. Most notably, Feinstein asked him how he would handle issues of abortion access and same-sex marriage, both of which have been decided by the Supreme Court.

“It is the law of the land,” he said of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. “It deserves respect, and I would respect it and follow it." He had a similar answer regarding the court’s ruling supporting same-sex marriage.

Sessions also clarified during the hearing that he believes waterboarding is illegal, despite Trump’s support of it during the campaign, and that he doesn't support a ban on Muslims entering the United States and would not support a law enacting such a ban.  But on certain questions from Democrats, such as what the administration’s policies would be for the 800,000 immigrant children who have protections under President Obama’s executive orders, Sessions was vague.

Overall, most Republicans were prepared to support Sessions before the hearing, while most Democrats seemed inclined to oppose his nomination. Tuesday appeared to do little to change any minds. 

“As I have said before, I believe the Senate should give deference to the president as he forms his Cabinet when qualified nominees are put forward,” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a member of the committee, said in a statement. “Jeff Sessions is qualified and capable to serve as our next attorney general, and I look forward to supporting his confirmation.”

Sessions’ hearing, the first for a Trump Cabinet nominee, may have foreshadowed confirmation hearings to come this week and down the road for others. Though Democrats entered with a number of concerns and significant opposition, the hearing ultimately lacked a blockbuster revelation to convince any Republicans to vote against the nominee. And unless Republicans jump ship, Trump’s Cabinet nominees are likely to be confirmed.

Three more confirmation hearings are scheduled for Wednesday. Outside witnesses also will get to testify about Sessions’ nomination Wednesday, and three confirmation hearings are scheduled for Thursday. Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee Tuesday afternoon.

“Both Sessions and Kelly made American voters proud by coming well prepared and performing well during their confirmation hearings,” said a Trump transition source. “These qualified nominees should be confirmed without delay.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Sessions said a registry for Muslims would be unconstitutional.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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