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Senate GOP Gives Sessions’ Record a Pass in Confirmation Hearing

Christine Grimaldi

On the first day of Sessions' confirmation hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans largely dismissed the senator’s abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights.

A U.S. Senate committee Tuesday considered President-elect Trump’s attorney general nominee in an ongoing, two-day hearing expected to move Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), once deemed too racist to serve as a Reagan-era federal judge, a step closer to helming the nation’s highest law enforcement office.

On the first day of Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans largely dismissed the senator’s abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights. Sessions was also one of the few members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who didn’t condemn Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women in leaked hot-mic footage during the campaign, telling the conservative Weekly Standard that to describe it as such would be a “stretch,” though he backtracked on that characterization during the hearing. 

Progressive advocacy organizations have almost unilaterally condemned his nomination, warning that he could significantly roll back protections should he take over at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the committee’s new ranking member, said that she and her Judiciary colleagues had received letters opposing Sessions’ nomination from “400 different civil rights organizations, 1,400 law professors, 1,000 law students, a broad task force of organizations that oppose domestic violence, 70 reproductive health organizations and many, many others.”

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“All these letters express deep anxiety about the direction of the country and how this nominee will enforce the law fairly, evenly, and without personal bias,” Feinstein said in her opening remarks.

The American Civil Liberties Union, “as a matter of long-standing policy,” doesn’t support or oppose nominees but issued sweeping instructions to the committee, requesting that senators question Sessions on failures in his record—specifically about “police reform, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, Muslims’ rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, privacy rights, torture, and abortion rights.”

Democrats Press Race, Immigration Questions

Prominent Black members of Congress were expected to add their concerns about Sessions as the hearing proceeded. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), an icon of the civil rights movement, and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, are both listed on the committee’s witness roster. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) will become the first sitting senator to testify against one of his colleagues.

Their critiques, expected Wednesday during day two of the hearing, will join an intensifying backlash against Sessions as civil rights advocates and attorneys allege the nominee burnished his record as a prosecutor of such abuses. The attorney whose 1986 testimony was largely responsible for sinking Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship at the time alleged that Sessions wanted to “drop the case” against a Ku Klux Klan lynching, the Daily Beast reported.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) presented that same case at the hearing as evidence that “racial animus” never motivated Sessions.

Later on, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sessions commiserated about being called racists over the course of their careers in the same exchange in which they expressed mutual opposition to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowing undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a work permit and temporary relief from deportation. DACA benefits are renewable every two years—only as long as the program, under threat from the incoming Trump administration, is in place.

Feinstein Follows #AskAboutAbortion Calls

Early in the hearing, Feinstein shifted the conversation to reproductive rights, seemingly following pro-choice groups’ calls during the presidential debates to #AskAboutAbortion.

Feinstein raised an issue over the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a problematic 2015 law that denies abortion funding to survivors of human trafficking. Under the law, DOJ administers up to $30 million per fiscal year within a Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund for survivors’ health-care needs subject to the Hyde Amendment’s restriction on federal funding for most abortion care, Feinstein said. Would the DOJ, she asked, ensure that grant funds won’t be denied to providers that offer abortion care to human trafficking survivors, in keeping with the Hyde Amendment’s exception for rape survivors?

Sessions said he had “not thought through” the issue, punting to Congress.

“Ultimately, it’s a matter for this United States Congress, not so much a matter for the attorney general,” he said.

Feinstein then asked Sessions where he stood on Roe v. Wade.

Sessions said the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion “violated the Constitution” but that he would, nevertheless, respect and follow the law.

Doubts Linger for Pro-Choice Activists

Although Trump’s potential anti-choice Supreme Court picks, not Sessions, would have the power to bring about the end of Roe, the attorney general could do plenty to undermine the law on his own. Sessions could choose not to prosecute escalating anti-choice violence and harassment under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which makes it a federal crime to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive health-care services. The statute further provides for civil remedies for blocking access to abortion facilities, including fines against those found liable.

Under subsequent questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sessions said he would enforce the FACE Act for people seeking abortion care, even though “I’m not in favor of that—I am pro-life.”

Blumenthal also asked Sessions to disavow Operation Rescue’s endorsement after outlining the radical anti-choice group’s role in advocating for the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, a prominent provider of later abortion care. Sessions would only disavow “any activity like that.”

Pro-choice advocates expressed doubts that Sessions would follow the law on reproductive health care.

Dr. Willie Parker, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, called the fellow Alabaman “simply not fit to serve” as head of the DOJ.

“As reproductive health care providers, we are dedicated to helping women and men exercise their right to lives of autonomy, dignity, self-determination, and opportunity for all people,” Parker said in a statement before the hearing. “Sessions would not protect these fundamental human rights.”

Republicans Steamroll Nominees Through Senate

For all the criticisms against Sessions, the sitting senator is one of the few Trump nominees to have completed his Office of Government Ethics review and FBI background check prior to Republicans forging ahead with his confirmation hearing, according to a Politico report.

The independent, nonpartisan ethics office raised the accelerated schedule as a matter of “great concern,” even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell portrayed it as a partisan issue on CBS’ Face The Nation, telling Democrats to “grow up” after losing the presidential election.

McConnell subsequently came under fire from Democrats who flagged his 2009 letter to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) urging the completion of all reviews prior to hearings on President Obama’s cabinet nominees. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a revised version to McConnell as the inter-party fighting unfolded on Twitter.

“Back in 2009, EVERY Obama Cabinet Nominee had an ethics agreement in before their hearing. EVERY Obama Cabinet Nominee underwent a full FBI background check before the Senate considered their nomination. President-elect Trump’s nominees are way behind that mark,” Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor.

“I only ask, respectfully, that the Republican majority follow the same set of standards they had in 2009 when the shoe was on the other foot,” Schumer said.

Though Sessions’ cleared his outside reviews, legal advocates decried his Senate Judiciary Questionnaire—standard operating procedure for an attorney general nominee.

A trio of civil rights lawyers in a Washington Post op-ed last week accused Sessions of falsely claiming on the questionnaire that he was “personally” involved in litigating four major voting rights and desegregation cases. People for the American Way downgraded Sessions’ answers from “shockingly incomplete” to “astonishingly deficient” after he provided supplementary materials.

Sen. Al Franken (R-MN) used his time during the hearing to grill Sessions over the claims, but Sessions stuck to them.

“To me, as a layman…’filed’ means ‘I led the case’ or ‘I supervised the case,’ it doesn’t mean that my name was on it,” Franken said.

Sessions’ confirmation hearing continued late into the afternoon Tuesday and will reconvene Wednesday morning.

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