More than 30 years ago, Jeff Sessions probably couldn’t have imagined what just happened. Sworn in as attorney general Thursday after being confirmed Wednesday by the same body that once rejected his bid to be a federal judge, the Alabama Republican now faces the monumental task of enforcing the nation’s laws when its lawmakers are at each others’ throats.
In 1986, the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination to be a federal district judge in Alabama. Sessions, who was then a U.S. attorney, dusted himself off and began a long political assent that culminated in Wednesday’s 52-47 vote. The same issues that bedeviled Sessions in the 1980s, questions about whether he sought to suppress black voter turnout and whether his views on race made him fit for public service, defined the nasty confirmation fight he faced.
Those issues were crystallized by an extraordinary skirmish on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday night, when Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued against Sessions’ confirmation by citing the positions of the late Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky cited the rarely used Rule 19, which prohibits senators from impugning their colleagues.
“Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,” McConnell said Tuesday night. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Warren was forced to end her speech and take her seat. The fallout has seen both sides impugning each others’ motives, off the floor of course, and has helped increase the level of political fundraising a notch or two.
“We here in the Senate have a tradition of mutual respect among our fellow senators. We have a spirit of commenting. It’s a tradition I hold in high esteem. Last night that tradition was violated and the Senate went in a very bad direction. My Republican colleagues, I believe, were far too zealous in trying to enforce that tradition. And in doing so, were guilty of the exact same thing they were trying to police,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on Wednesday.
Sessions, an early supporter of Donald Trump’s bid to be president, is a hardliner on divisive, and partisan, issues like immigration and drug law enforcement. But Sessions’ policy positions didn’t prevent him from commanding respect, and affection, among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. That made the bruising confirmation fight, which saw senators break from tradition to vocally oppose him, all the more rare for a chamber whose members regard its confines as a genteel deliberative club.
In the end, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to vote to confirm Sessions. For his own part, Sessions voted simply “present.”