WASHINGTON – The Senate is working overtime toward confirming President Donald Trump's close ally, Sen. Jeff Sessions, to become the nation's top law enforcement officer as attorney general.
The Alabama Republican appears headed toward confirmation on Wednesday evening by a nearly party-line vote. Democrats harshly criticized Sessions for being too close to Trump, too harsh on immigrants, and too weak on civil rights.
"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.
Sessions would be the fourth Cabinet nominee approved by the Senate, where Democratic delaying tactics mean far fewer of Trump's picks are in place than were President Barack Obama's eight years ago.
Wednesday's 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.
Democrats asserted that Session 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. Their opposition invariably returned to skepticism that Sessions would weigh the interests of Trump along with the rights of the public.
"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?"
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 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.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell held that the Massachusetts Democrat had run afoul of the chamber's arcane rules by reading a three-decade-old letter from Mrs. King that dated to Sessions' failed judicial nomination three decades ago. McConnell's fellow GOP senators backed his position and Warren, who is very popular with her party's liberal wing, was construed as violating Senate rules for "impugning the motives" of Sessions, even though senators have said far worse in fiery floor debates. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called McConnell a liar in a 2015 dustup in the chamber.
Sessions was a prominent early backer of Trump and was a big supporter of his hard line on illegal immigration and an joined Trump's advocacy of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
His confirmation vote comes as Trump has upended Washington, most notably with his ban on travel from seven majority Muslim nations and his criticism of a federal judge who issued a stay halting it.
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 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.
But he has also called waterboarding, a now-banned harsh interrogation technique that Trump has at times expressed support for, was "absolutely improper and illegal."
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."