WASHINGTON (AP) – The Republican-led Senate worked nonstop Wednesday toward a confirmation vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, who faced a firestorm of Democratic criticism over his record on civil rights and other issues.
Democrats contended Sessions is too close to Trump, too harsh on immigrants, and weak on civil rights. They asserted he wouldn’t do enough to protect voting rights of minorities, protections for gay people, the right of women to procure abortions, and immigrants in the country illegally to receive due process.
Still, the Alabama Republican was expected to prevail on a near party-line evening vote.
“There is simply nothing in Senator Sessions’ testimony before the Judiciary Committee that gives me confidence that he would be willing to stand up to the president,” said Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt. “He has instead demonstrated only blind allegiance.”
Republicans say Sessions has demonstrated over a long career in public service – and two decades in the Senate – that he possesses integrity, honesty, and is committed to justice and the rule of law.
“We all know him to be a man of deep integrity, a man of his word, and a man committed to fairness,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Sessions enjoys unanimous backing from fellow Republicans and cleared a procedural vote Tuesday afternoon by a 52-47 margin, with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin crossing over to back him.
Wednesday’s confirmation vote comes amid rising tension between Republicans controlling the chamber and minority Democrats largely opposed to Trump Cabinet picks like Betsy DeVos at Education – who cleared the Senate by a 51-50 vote on Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence casting a historic vote to break a tie.
This week has featured overnight Senate sessions as GOP leaders are grinding through a thicket of controversial picks. After Wednesday’s vote on Sessions comes Health and Human Services Department nominee Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.
Epitomizing the sharp-edged partisanship surrounding confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was given a rare rebuke Tuesday evening for quoting Coretta Scott King, widow of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., on the Senate floor. King wrote that as an acting federal prosecutor in Alabama, Sessions used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell held that the Massachusetts Democrat had run afoul of the chamber’s arcane rules about impugning a fellow senator.
Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship was rejected three decades ago by the Senate Judiciary Committee after it was alleged that as a federal prosecutor he had called a black attorney “boy” and had said organizations like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union were un-American.
At his hearing last month, Sessions said he had never harbored racial animus, saying he had been falsely caricatured.
Sessions would be the fifth Cabinet nominee approved by the Senate, joining Trump’s choices for Defense, Homeland Security, Education and State. Democratic delaying tactics mean far fewer of Trump’s picks are in place than were President Barack Obama’s eight years ago.
Sessions was a prominent early backer of Trump, a supporter of his hard line on illegal immigration and joined Trump’s advocacy of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Sen. Sessions views this appointment as an opportunity to participate in a movement to advance the president’s agenda,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the Judiciary panel. “This is not the role of the attorney general of the United States…. Can we really expect him to be an attorney general who is independent from President Trump?”
Sessions has described a conservative vision for the Justice Department, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” and to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Though he said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly enter the country illegally and criticized as constitutionally “questionable” an executive action by Obama that shielded certain immigrants from deportation, he said he did “not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”