On Wednesday evening, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed as US Attorney General with a final vote of 52-47 after nearly thirty hours of debate, during which Democratic senators voiced their strong opposition to Sessions’ confirmation.
The debate took on an even more heated tone after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) barred from speaking on the floor following her reading of a 1986 letter written by the late Coretta Scott King, in which King opposes Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship, accusing him of using “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” McConnell accused Warren of ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a senator,” a violation of Rule XIX.
Democratic Senators quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of such an accusation, given that the rule is frequently never enforced, and that the case is unique as Sessions, though a sitting senator, was the topic of the debate due to his nomination. Since Senator Warren’s removal, other Democratic senators have sought to finish what Warren started and have successfully read the letter on the Senate floor.
McConnell stated, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Concern over Sessions’ appointment has stemmed from his prosecutorial and senatorial records, and whether or not he would be willing and able to enforce laws that he actively opposes. Sessions has not been steadfast in condemning violence against women, voting against the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act because of its expansions to immigrant women, Native American women and college students. Sessions has called Roe V. Wade a “colossally erroneous” decision and has repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to undermine the right to abortion through legislation, putting him well out of the mainstream, as evidenced by the support he received from anti-abortion extremist Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. Sessions vigorously opposed the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, particularly concerning given that the attorney general must sign off on all criminal hate crime prosecutions.
Many senators also had concerns over some of his controversial comments. Sessions, who has an alarming record on civil rights, called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and has minimized voter suppression tactics in the South. After tapes were released of then-Presidential candidate Trump gloating that he grabs women by the genitals without their consent, Sessions notoriously remarked that he didn’t believe that act of violence legally constituted as sexual assault, a comment that was very concerning to survivors and advocates. The day before Sessions testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of sexual assault survivors went to Sessions’ Capitol Hill office to present him with the Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault.
There were also questions about whether he would be willing to stand up to President Trump in the face of potentially illegal or unconstitutional executive actions. Sessions, who has long associated with advocacy groups that promote anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, was reportedly involved in crafting Trump’s controversial Muslim ban.
Sessions’ appointment will be followed by debate over the confirmation of Tom Price for Health and Human Services Secretary and Steven Mnuchin, nominee for Treasury Secretary.
Media Resources: NBC 2/8/17; New York Times 8/7/17; Wall Street Journal 2/9/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 1/11/17, 1/31/17