Five things to watch for in Sessions confirmation hearing
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has emerged as one of President-elect Donald Trump’s most polarizing Cabinet picks, will face his colleagues in the Senate on Tuesday as he seeks confirmation to become the country’s next attorney general.
As a former U.S. attorney and attorney general in his home state of Alabama, most would say Sessions has the experience necessary to lead the Justice Department.
But he faces fierce opposition from liberal outside groups, who have cast him as a racist and questioned his commitment to protecting civil and voting rights.
Here’s a look at five things to watch as a frantic week of confirmation hearings gets underway on Capitol Hill.
Does he detail Trump’s plans on immigration?
Sessions is known as the foremost immigration hawk in the Senate, so you can bet he’ll be pressed on an issue that has liberals on edge in the age of Trump.
Expect Democrats to come armed with statistics challenging the notion that illegal immigrants are flooding across the southern border; that crime is out of control among illegal immigrants; and that President Obama has not done enough to deport those in the country illegally who have committed other crimes.
In addition, while it won’t necessarily fall under his purview at the Justice Department, Democratic senators will likely look to score political points by challenging Sessions on the complications of building a border wall.
And they’ll likely look to get him to say that he won’t move to deport, en masse, the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in the country, and in particular the estimated 700,000 young undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
As president, Trump could do away with that program by executive order.
What tone will the senators strike?
The soft-spoken Sessions — a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Senate — is well liked by his colleagues and almost certain to secure the 51 votes needed for confirmation.
He will be introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a well-regarded moderate who has emerged as one of his most vocal supporters in the upper chamber.
So far, only one Democrat — Sherrod Brown, the progressive-minded senator from Ohio — has said he plans to oppose Sessions’s nomination.
That has frustrated liberal outside groups, who are putting intense pressure on Democratic lawmakers to oppose Sessions — or at least to take off the gloves in challenging the Alabama senator over what they believe to be the more controversial aspects of his record.
Liberal groups would cheer a full-scale attack against Sessions on those fronts, but Democratic lawmakers will more than likely take a more delicate approach with one of their own.
Still, there would be no better way for a Democrat to become a superstar on the left than to go hard after Sessions.
How does he address voting rights and policing?
Liberals are eager for lawmakers to press Sessions on how aggressive he’ll be in prosecuting voter irregularities, believing those cases disproportionately target minority voters.
A voter fraud case Sessions brought against three black civil rights activists in the 1980s has become a touchstone among his liberal critics.
Voter fraud is a big issue for Republicans, but Democrats believe it is a non-issue drummed up as a justification for onerous registration rules.
Liberals are also fearful that Sessions will look to roll back police procedures enacted under Obama’s Justice Department that they say are a necessary deterrent against police abuses of minorities.
Some police departments say they’re being demonized and their officers restricted from reacting in accordance with their training.
Furthermore, some civil liberties advocates are concerned that Sessions will usher in an era of limitless government surveillance.
Sessions has advocated for dramatically increasing spy powers, and as attorney general would have broad authority over the government’s data collection efforts.
How long does the hearing dwell on 1986?
It’s virtually certain Democrats will bring up testimony from Sessions’s 1986 confirmation battle that accused him of making racially insensitive remarks while serving as Alabama’s attorney general.
Sessions became President Ronald Reagan’s first judicial nominee to be defeated after the Senate Judiciary Committee heard charges that he had called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union un-American, communist-inspired organizations and had agreed with a judge’s remark that a white civil rights lawyer was “a disgrace to his race” for representing black plaintiffs.
Sessions denied ever making the remarks but admitted during those hearings, “I am loose with my tongue on occasion.”
After 20 years in the Senate, Sessions is likely better prepared to handle the inquisition this time around.
He’s not giving media interviews during the confirmation process, but in a statement to The Hill last week his spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores called the rehashing of the 30-year-old testimony a “smear campaign.”
“Senator Sessions’ four decade career in public service includes bipartisan victories on criminal justice issues … and bipartisan endorsements that include law enforcement, victims rights organizations, and African American leaders,” she said. “As Attorney General, he will refocus the Department of Justice on upholding the rule of law and ensuring public safety.”
How vigorous will the protests be?
Sessions’s confirmation hearings this week could be explosive. Groups on the left are pressuring Democrats to reject his nomination, and protests could interrupt the committee’s questioning on either day.
Civil Rights Groups, including the NAACP, the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have called Sessions an “unfit nominee.”
Last week, the NAACP staged a sit-in at Sessions office in Mobile, Ala., to protest his nomination. Six civil rights activists were arrested, including NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, NPR reported.
On Monday, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) submitted a 32-page report to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling on the Senate to reject Sessions’s nomination.
“For his more than 40 years in public life, Jeff Sessions has demonstrated unrelenting hostility to civil rights and racial justice,” Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s president and director-counsel, said in a statement.
“At every turn, he has stood opposed to the legal achievements that that have upheld and advanced equality and opportunity for every segment of our society — blacks, women, members of the LGBTQ community, workers, immigrants, consumers, schoolchildren, people with disabilities, religious minorities, and more.”
D.C.-area clergy and faith leaders also marched to Capitol Hill Monday to condemn Trump’s attorney general pick and urge others to do the same.
“We are calling on people of conscience to protest the nomination of Jeff Sessions because his record shows consistent support for ideological extremism, racist and classist policies, and the writing of discrimination into law,” the Rev. William Barber II, pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church, said in a statement.