- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Senate approved Jeff Sessions as attorney general Wednesday, installing one of President Trump’s biggest backers at the head of the Justice Department after one of the nastiest confirmation battles in a generation.

Only a single Democrat joined Republicans in the 52-47 vote to confirm Mr. Sessions — a startling snub of a man they spent decades working with but whom they now assailed with thinly veiled accusations of racism and xenophobia.

Mr. Sessions’ to-do list at the department is already lengthy, with the defense of the president’s extreme vetting executive action and a host of other lawsuits piling up against Mr. Trump’s sanctuary city and regulatory policies.

He also will spearhead an immigration crackdown and decide whether to continue to fight some of the legal battles that the Obama administration pursued, including over states’ voter ID and school bathroom policies for transgender students.

“I feel it in my bones, I hope and pray I can be worthy of the trust you gave me,” Mr. Sessions said as he read his resignation letter and delivered his farewell speech.

As a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general in Alabama, and with 20 years of service in the Senate, Mr. Sessions left little doubt about his legal qualifications for the Justice Department’s top job.

But Democrats said they feared Mr. Sessions’ close relationship with Mr. Trump. The attorney general, they said, must be prepared to be a check when the president oversteps legal boundaries. That was particularly true for this presidency, they said.

They worried that Mr. Sessions wouldn’t be strong enough in enforcing civil rights laws and that he would be too zealous in following immigration laws.

Mr. Trump’s decision last week to fire the acting attorney general, an Obama holdover, after she refused to defend his extreme vetting executive order in court, only heightened the debate.

“Many of us worry that Jeff Sessions will not be the independent check on this administration that we need,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat.

Mr. Sessions’ confirmation marked just the seventh Cabinet-level position approved by the Senate, nearly three weeks into Mr. Trump’s tenure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush had seven nominees approved on their first day in office.

Republicans said it is the worst blockade any new president has faced since George Washington.

Democrats’ hostility continued Wednesday night, minutes after Mr. Sessions’ confirmation, when they attempted to filibuster Mr. Trump’s nominee for health and human services secretary, Rep. Tom Price. Republicans broke the filibuster on a 51-48 vote, and the Senate will likely hold a final confirmation vote Friday morning.

It’s possible that neither Mr. Sessions nor Mr. Price would have been able to win confirmation if Democrats hadn’t triggered the “nuclear option” in 2013, changing the rules to eviscerate the power of the filibuster to block Cabinet picks and federal judicial nominees other than the Supreme Court.

Mr. Sessions abstained from the vote Wednesday but was on the chamber floor the entire time. Only a single Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, came to speak to him.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia did offer a thumbs-up as he crossed paths with Mr. Sessions. Mr. Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for him.

“I have known Jeff for more than a decade, and he is not only my colleague but I consider him a friend,” Mr. Manchin said. “After working with him in many capacities during my time in the United States Senate, I believe I can work with Sen. Sessions.”

Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Manchin were the only two Democrats to stay in their seats to hear Mr. Sessions’ farewell speech.

Democrats’ chief objections dated back to the 1980s, when Mr. Sessions was a U.S. attorney in Alabama. Most controversial was his prosecution of three black voting rights activists who were gathering absentee ballots from black voters.

The activists said they were trying to help people vote, but the government said they were farming absentee ballots, gathering unmarked ballots from voters and filling them in.

That case was the focus of Mr. Sessions’ 1986 hearing when he was nominated for a federal judgeship — a job he was denied by a Senate vote.

Also part of that 1986 proceeding were accusations that Mr. Sessions made racially insensitive remarks — some of which the senator disputed and others that he said were poor jokes.

Denied the judgeship, Mr. Sessions would later run for the Senate, taking his seat in 1997 alongside some of the very senators who voted against him a decade earlier.

In the two decades since, Mr. Sessions worked with many of those lawmakers and earned a reputation for fierce conservatism but courtly manners.

That counted for little among Democrats, though, who said they had too many ideological differences with Mr. Sessions.

Sen. Cory A. Booker, a black Democrat from New Jersey, broke with tradition and demanded a chance to testify against his colleague in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil rights movement, also testified.

Mr. Lewis, who led the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, said Mr. Sessions represented a return to the days of police beatings.

The attacks were too much for some Republicans.

“It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law. He believes strongly in the equal application of it to everyone.”

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