The nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s pick for attorney general, appeared to be on its way to a full Senate vote early Tuesday afternoon, as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed the reasons for their intended votes. Through Tuesday afternoon it looked like a strict party line vote. If the pattern holds true through the roll call vote tomorrow morning, the committee will send the Sessions nomination to the Senate floor with an 11-9 favorable vote. The full Senate could vote on the nomination as early as Thursday.
Though the ultimate outcome—passage out of committee—was expected a week ago, few had foreseen such a close tally. Sessions endured relatively light questioning during his two-day confirmation hearing on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11. Most members of the Judiciary Committee, on which Sessions had served for many years, were cordial if not downright chummy with the long-serving Alabama senator. The most difficult questions focused on issues of racism, civil rights, and voting rights. When cannabis legalization came up in a couple instances, Sessions easily deflected questions without offering a meaningful answer.
But after one week in office, President Trump’s radical and fast-moving series of executive actions have thrown nearly every cabinet nominee’s confirmation into question. Early Tuesday, Democrats stalled the expected committee votes on Trump’s treasury and health nominees, Steve Mnuchin and Rep. Tom Price, respectively, by simply not showing up. According to committee rules, at least one member of the minority party must be present to record a vote.
Sen. Dick Durbin
No such boycott occurred at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting Tuesday morning, although it’s uncertain whether that should be taken as a show of respect for Sessions and Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) or a calculated move to push back against Trump in a highly public forum. The Democrats may have decided to show up simply to use the committee hearing as a forum to vent their outrage over the Trump’s move to block mostly Muslim refugees over the weekend as well as his firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates late Monday night.
By Tuesday morning, it was clear that Democrats on the committee were alarmed by Trump’s moves and feared that a Sessions-led Department of Justice would do nothing to stop or even slow any executive orders that might violate the US Constitution.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) captured the feeling during his turn at the microphone. “This is not just a hearing on a nomination,” he said. “This is a constitutional moment.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said, “The administration’s unpredictable, reckless, extreme agenda has cast a shadow over all nominees, not just Sen. Sessions.” Leahy said that “now we find the independence of the Justice Department under siege” following the departure of Yates, whom Trump fired Monday night for refusing to defend Trump’s immigration order in court.
Yesterday’s Washington Post article by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, which called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of Trump’s dramatic first-week moves, received a lot of play from a number of Democratic senators. So did this historic exchange between Sessions, then a member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sally Yates when she appeared for her own confirmation hearing years ago:
Leahy addressed those same concerns in today’s hearing. “I have very serious doubts that Sen. Sessions would be an independent attorney general” with the inclination to ever push back or say no to Trump’s wishes, Leahy said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) quoted Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who called Sessions the “fiercest, most dedicated, and most loyal promoter in Congress of Trump’s agenda.”
Republicans, for their part, wrote off the Democratic objections as simply electoral sour grapes. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) summed up the position among many in the majority: “Our friends on the other side of the aisle seem to be upset about the outcome of the election on Nov. 8.”
Sens. Cornyn, Grassley, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) all spoke highly of the experience, preparation, and high moral character Sessions brought to the job. Most said they intended to “enthusiastically support” the nomination.
The issue of cannabis legalization did not come up during today’s hearing. The events of the past week served to push most secondary issues completely off the Judiciary Committee’s agenda.
At midday, Committee Chairman Grassley acknowledged that the hearing was likely to go on all day. With each turn at the microphone, every senator took his or her own sweet time to air concerns, grievances, and praise—and Grassley said he had no intention of limiting them. But the outcome looked certain. “I think everybody knows how everybody’s going to vote,” Grassley said, as he attempted to keep enough senators in the room to preserve his voting quorum. Later, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) invoked a procedural rule to push the official roll call vote on the nomination to tomorrow morning. The committee will reconvene on Wednesday at 10:30am EST to vote on Sessions’ nomination.