Sen. Jeff Sessions will be in the hot seat Tuesday as senators consider his nomination for attorney general — but, barring an unexpected revelation, Democrats appear to lack the ammunition to stop him.
Not that the Alabama Republican’s critics won’t try.
“If there isn’t any really new information, it’s hard to see how he loses.”
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have already promised a thorough examination of his record, and Sen. Chis Coons (D-Del.) told CNN on Monday that there are “many areas where his votes and his record, from civil liberties to civil rights to torture to criminal justice reform to immigration are starkly different from my own.”
Sessions can expect grilling on all of that, as well as his relationship with President-Elect Donald Trump, his tenure as a prosecutor in the 1980s, and old allegations of racial insensitivity that sank his bid for a judicial appointment in 1986.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the big question is whether the hearings will produce any information about the senator’s record that has not already been rehashed.
“If there isn’t any really new information, it’s hard to see how he loses,” said Pitney, pointing to the GOP majority in the Senate and former Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s decision to eliminate the filibuster for Cabinet appointments.
As long as the Republican caucus remains unified, Democrats are powerless to block Sessions. And it’s hard to see where those Republican defectors would come from. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the kind of party-bucking senator who might be a problem for Sessions, has spoken favorably about the nomination. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a vociferous critic of Trump, put out a statement in November supporting him.
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Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who differs with Sessions on many issues, will introduce him at the confirmation hearing.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Democratic opposition to Sessions is not really about defeating him.
“He’s guaranteed to be confirmed,” he said. “Democrats know this. The point of this is to dirty up Sessions as much as possible … A lot of this is just performance art for their base that just can’t believe Trump won.”
Krikorian, whose Washington-based think tank favors lower levels of immigration, said that and other issues likely will play a leading role at the confirmation hearing. He said hashing out public policy differences puts Democrats on firmer ground than trying to make the case that a man they have known and worked with for two decades is a racist.
“The other stuff is nonsense,” he said, referring to allegations that Sessions as U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, called a black prosecutor “boy” and said he respected the Ku Klux Klan until he found out its members smoked marijuana. Sessions denied the former statement and said the latter was a joke.
“It’s so laughably unsubstantiated that they’re going to have to come up with something,” Krikorian said.
But if Sessions’ critics think they can make headway by re-litigating the failed Gang of Eight immigration reform — after an election in which the presidential winner made opposition to such reforms a centerpiece — Krikorian said, “I say, have at it.”
John Malcolm, director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, said attention on Sessions, both pro and con, may outweigh scrutiny of all of Trump’s other Cabinet nominations combined. He said Sessions is in for a grilling, but he added that he believes Republicans will remain unified and that some Democrats will vote for him, too.
“I think it’s going to be ugly. I think it’s going to by bloody,” he said. “I just don’t see [Sessions losing Republican votes]. Jeff Sessions has been their colleague for years. They know that he isn’t a racist.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) echoed that sentiment in an interview with CNN on Monday.
“I think it’s unfair for people to, and actually very hurtful, for people to say, ‘Oh, you’re a racist,’ when there’s no evidence in his public career that he ever has been racially insensitive,” he said. “So I think it’s a slander and very unfair for people to try to do that to someone. And I think he’s going to do fine in the confirmation process.”
Trump told reporters Monday that he believes all of his nominees will be confirmed. Asked specifically if he is worried about Sessions, he said, “No, I think he’s going to do great. High-quality man.”
Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor, said questions about whether Sessions is too close to Trump to be independent are legitimate. But Krikorian said Sessions, unlike other potential choices, has the integrity and standing with Trump to tell the president if something is illegal.
Pitney said he believes most Democrats will vote against Sessions because the liberal base demands it. But he speculated that some of them might tell Sessions privately not to take it personally.
“If for some reason he’s not confirmed, he goes back in the Senate the next day,” he said. “That’s pretty much the definition of awkward.”