Long before there was a Sen. Ted Cruz filibustering Obamacare on the Senate floor or a Sen. Rand Paul demanding answers on government drone policy, Sen. Jeff Sessions was holding the Senate floor for hours on end, espousing classic tea party stances against higher spending and expanding presidential powers long before the tea party movement existed.
From judicial nominees to spending to last year’s immigration bill, the Alabama Republican has led the opposition to some of the big-ticket items on President Obama’s domestic agenda — though he has done it without the kind of presidential campaign speculation that many of his colleagues face.
“Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul may get all the national media attention, but for better or worse, Sen. Sessions day in and day out has been the most vocal critic of the president and his policies,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to top Senate Democrats. “He spends hours on the floor criticizing the president on a whole host of issues.”
Mr. Sessions, who is favored to win a fourth Senate term in November, also has been a roadblock for some fellow Republicans, particularly on immigration reform, and in clashes pitting the interests of Main Street against those of the business class — a key distinction that sets the tea party aside from other conservative movements.
“It is time for the Republican Party to understand that it represents all people in America, in particular working people who have not done well enough in recent years,” Mr. Sessions told The Washington Times. “It is not enough to talk about entrepreneurs and job creators because most Americans work for somebody.”
His willingness to take on all comers has won Mr. Sessions a deep pool of admirers.
“Jeff Sessions is, without question, the most solid conservative senator,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist. “He is always, always, always doing the right thing, riding to the sound of the guns, and making trouble for the bad guys.”
Mr. Sessions shows no signs of slowing down: Last week, he was actively lobbying House Republicans at their retreat in Cambridge, Md., against a statement of principles on immigration policy that included legal status for illegal immigrants and a path to citizenship for younger illegals brought to the United States by their parents.
The irony is that if it were not for Democrats, Mr. Sessions probably never would have made it to the Senate.
In 1986, President Reagan nominated Mr. Sessions to be a federal district court judge in Alabama. But Senate Democrats — led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and current Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont — cast Mr. Sessions as a relic of the racist Jim Crow South and blocked his confirmation.
Mr. Sessions went on to become Alabama’s state attorney general and won his Senate seat in 1996, succeeding retiring Democrat Howard Heflin. He won his 2008 race comfortably, with 63 percent of the vote.
No hard feelings
Mr. Manley, a longtime aide to Mr. Kennedy, said Mr. Sessions never showed any ill will toward his boss when he arrived in Washington.
“The first time Sen. Kennedy introduced me to Sen. Sessions, we were in a members-only elevator and he couldn’t be more gracious,” Mr. Manley said.
Mr. Sessions told The Times that Democrats leveled bogus accusations against him, but he harbored no hard feelings.
“There is no advantage going around holding grudges,” he said.
Even as he separates the personal and political, Mr. Sessions is a fierce critic of Democratic policies.
His initial speech on the Senate floor in 1997 was to call for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
“Washington cannot be trusted to keep its financial house in order,” he said at the time. “Americans know the burdens of Washington’s excesses are going to fall primarily on their children, a result which is unjust and unconscionable.”
He has served as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, where he led opposition to Mr. Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, and now is the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, where he opposed last month’s bipartisan budget deal, which he warned would clear the way for increased spending this year and next.
He also has criticized the way Senate Democrats changed filibuster rules that reduced the number of voters needed to confirm most presidential appointees from a three-fifths supermajority to a simple majority.
“The Democrats, they have a very short memory,” Mr. Sessions said, alluding to Democrats’ use of the filibuster against President George W. Bush’s nominees when they were in the minority party. “They take a position one year and the next they take a completely different one without the slightest concern over their inconsistencies.”
Tea party activists and other conservative groups that have grown frustrated with many in the Republican Party establishment have soft spots for Mr. Sessions. Unlike a number of senior Republican senators, Mr. Sessions is not facing a strong conservative primary challenge in his re-election race, and political forecasters say his seat is safe in the general election.
“Jeff is one of those guys who may not have the flash of Ted Cruz and he may not be considered Ted Cruz’s sidekick, like Mike Lee [of Utah], but I think that Jeff has really begun to prove himself over this last year as a pretty dependable conservative,” said Drew Ryan, political director of the Madison Project PAC, which is targeting a number of Republican incumbents in primary races, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi. “For the conservative movement, is he going to be a Ted Cruz or a Mike Lee? No. But when they go into the fight, is Jeff Sessions going to be with them eight, nine times out of 10? Yes.”
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, said Mr. Sessions has been “one of the strongest voices against Obamacare and for smaller government.”
“He’s clearly a Republican who understands the issues and understands the fight to reduce government,” Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Sessions does have some blemishes on his record in the eyes of conservatives, including his support for Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law, which the Senate passed by a 87-10 vote, and for Mr. Bush’s Medicare Part D prescription drug program, which critics say added a massive entitlement program to the government.
Democrats say Mr. Sessions supports spending cuts that would tear apart the social safety net programs that help low-income Americans.
Mr. Sessions has a 94 percent lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union and has received an 86 percent lifetime rating from the Club for Growth.
The track record has helped him stay out of the cross hairs of the ultra-conservative wing of his party, which is looking to knock off some of his fellow Republicans this year in primary contests.
Asked about the primary challenges, Mr. Sessions said the tea party sometimes can overlook the complexities of legislating and misjudge the values of some of his colleagues.
But he said he is a “big defender” of the grass-roots movement and shares its frustration with Washington’s inability to confront the soaring national debt.
“Why shouldn’t they be upset?” Mr. Sessions said. “They are just tired of hearing excuses.”