Senate Democrats brought out the big guns Wednesday for a final shot at damaging Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, with two prominent black lawmakers, including a civil rights hero from the House, testifying that they fear the Alabama Republican will not defend equal rights for minorities, homosexuals and women.
Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat, took the unprecedented step of testifying against a fellow senator, saying Mr. Sessions’ record on civil rights disqualifies him from serving as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job — to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all. In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions, and has worked to frustrate attempts to advance these ideals,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rep. John Lewis, who led the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, said Mr. Sessions’ law-and-order rhetoric stoked fear of a return to police beatings of blacks who challenged segregation or sought to vote.
“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society will wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for law and order means today what it meant in Alabama when I was growing up,” said Mr. Lewis, Georgia Democrat.
The testimony capped two days of confirmation hearings in which Democrats painted a portrait of Mr. Sessions as a racist, sexist homophobe and anti-Muslim bigot — making the Alabama senator and former federal prosecutor the poster child for congressional Democrats’ efforts to undermine President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda before the New York billionaire even takes the oath of office.
The effort, however, did not appear to hurt Mr. Sessions’ prospects in the Republican-run Senate, with several Democratic senators expected to join the majority Republicans in confirming their Senate colleague as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“The consensus is [Mr. Sessions] has held up very well,” said Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican.
Immediately following the close of Wedensday’s hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who has been hard on some of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet picks, announced his support.
“Jeff is a formidable lawyer with an intense passion for defending the Constitution — two of the many qualities that will serve him well as attorney general of the United States,” the Florida senator said. “Jeff understands the threats our nation faces, including radical Islamic terrorists within our borders and illicit drugs destroying our communities. I am confident he will make protecting our neighborhoods a top priority.
Mr. Booker and Mr. Lewis appeared in the final panel at the hearing, along with Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The first row of seats directly behind the panel in the ornate Senate hearing room was filled with members of the CBC.
Mr. Richmond said the Republican-run committee’s decision to schedule Mr. Lewis and the other black witnesses for the final panel was “equivalent of being sent to the back of the bus.”
The CBC members behind him nodded in agreement.
In testimony before the committee Tuesday, Mr. Sessions pledged to uphold federal law fairly and equally.
During the hearing, Mr. Sessions was repeatedly criticized for his votes against a recent version of the Violence Against Women Act and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was cast as evidence of his disdain for women and the LGBT community.
Mr. Sessions, a former U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general, said his policy positions won’t prevent him from following the law.
The final panel included supporters such as Willie Huntley, who worked under Mr. Sessions in Alabama as an assistant U.S. attorney. He noted Mr. Sessions’ prosecution of Ku Klux Klan members and other civil rights cases.
Mr. Huntley, who is black, said in the time he’s known Mr. Sessions, he’s never observed, “any racial insensitivity …. In my opinion, Jeff Sessions will enforce and follow the laws of the United States even-handedly equally and with justice for all.”
The racism accusations stem from critics who contend that Mr. Sessions, as U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, improperly prosecuted black voting rights activists and made racially insensitive comments. He is accused of joking once that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he learned its members smoked marijuana.
In 1986 the same accusations derailed his nomination for the federal bench when he also was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which he currently sits as a member.
Committee Democrats announced receiving letters of opposition to Mr. Sessions from faith leaders, civil rights and civil liberties groups and organizations fighting domestic violence.
At the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham confronted the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with accusations that his group has an anti-Republican bias.
NAACP President Cornell Brooks testified that Mr. Sessions’ record “evinces a clear disregard, disrespect and even disdain for the civil and human rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and others who suffer from discrimination in this country.”
Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican, asked what was Mr. Sessions’ score on the NAACP legislative score card.
“The senator has received a low grade, a failing grade, for years on end,” said Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Graham noted that every Republican on the committee received a failing grade in the teens or 20s, while nearly every Democrat on the committee received a score of 100 percent.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons of Delaware was the only Democrat on the committee who didn’t get a 100 percent from the NAACP. He got 96 percent.
“The report card is based on legislative record, not party,” Mr. Brooks said.
Mr. Graham said the huge disparity in NAACP scores between Republicans and Democrats was “really odd.”
“I think it speaks for itself,” Mr. Graham said. “I hope that doesn’t make us all racist and all of them perfect on the issue.”
He asked Mr. Brooks to name one person on the Republican side who would make a good attorney general.
Mr. Brooks did not respond.