Democrats Face Uphill Battle Blocking Jeff Sessions

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Democrats are unlikely to impede confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, even if this week’s confirmation hearings are heavy on antagonism.

Sessions will appear before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary for several days beginning Tuesday. While committee Democrats may succeed in landing blows against the Alabama senator, none are likely to significantly obstruct confirmation proceedings.

The senator’s biggest asset in what otherwise could have been a grueling fight for the top spot at the U.S. Department of Justice is his congeniality. In a Congress fraught with distrust and partisan entrenchment, Sessions’ gentility is a welcome break from the usual din of Capitol Hill, and a boon to his confirmation prospects.

“He is one of the more well-liked members of the Senate, a place that still retains elements of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs,” the Washington Post’s Paul Kane observes. “He is genial, respectful and patient toward colleagues and staff. And that has given fellow Republicans and even some Democrats reason not to scrutinize the more unsavory allegations of his political history.”

Kane is referencing allegations of racial bias that have dogged Sessions since his scuttled nomination to the federal bench in 1986. Committee Democrats and their allies in civil rights groups criticized Sessions’ alleged recalcitrance to bring civil rights lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved minorities as a U.S. attorney, as well as racist remarks he supposedly made in private. Sessions virulently denied both charges, though they sunk his nomination nonetheless. (RELATED: Dem State AGs Plot To Resist Trump In The Courts)

Thirty years later, those same civil rights groups mobilized against Sessions — often styled “Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III” in their press releases — but with the disordered agitation generally expected of a high school student government meeting. Their activities have largely been limited to online petitions and conference calls with the press, while their high-impact demonstration, a sit-in staged by the NAACP at the senator’s Mobile office, did not appear to have the intended reverberation in media. Little was mentioned of the protest since its conclusion several days ago.

Their efforts are further hamstrung by defections within their own ranks. In early January, Albert Turner Jr., the son of two civil rights activists Sessions prosecuted for voter fraud as U.S. attorney, announced his endorsement of the appointment. The Turner prosecution has been a prominent feature of left-wing criticism of the Sessions nomination. Critics charge him with waging a punitive, racially charged jeremiad against the Turners, who served as senior aides to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and marched with Rep. John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus bridge.

Turner, Jr. said in a statement that Sessions was simply acting on evidence presented to him by local district attorneys and does not believe the prosecution was motivated by racial animus.

Activists even struggled to find an ally in the Obama White House. Vice President Joe Biden, who led the fight against Sessions during his nomination to the federal district court in his capacity as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the Senate should seek to accommodate President-elect Donald Trump’s wishes as regards cabinet appointments. He even demurred when asked about the racially-charged controversies surrounding his nomination.

“I wouldn’t have appointed Jeff but people learn, people change,” the vice president said in mid-December.

Sessions’ nomination could just as easily be hobbled by a few defections from the right. The senator is cool, by all accounts, to sentencing and civil forfeiture reform, measures popular on the libertarian right — and increasingly in the mainstream of the Republican party. Still, the chamber’s lite-libertarians, including Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, are expected to back his nomination.

All things considered, if one views the Sessions confirmation as a proxy for future battles, it portends badly for critics left and right who expect to mount a defense against the Trump administration.

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