WASHINGTON — The Senate Republican majority on Wednesday confirmed the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general, overcoming the Democrats’ round-the-clock attacks of his record on civil rights, immigration and other issues.
The Senate approved the nomination in a 52-47 vote, with Sessions voting “present.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined 51 Republicans to make him President Donald Trump’s fifth Cabinet-level nominee to clear Democratic hurdles and be sworn in.
Sessions, a conservative four-term senator whom the Senate rejected as a federal judge in 1986, has drawn some of the strongest opposition to Trump’s Cabinet choices as liberal, pro-immigrant and civil rights activists urged Senate Democrats to vote against him.
The approval of Sessions will bring a major shift in the Justice Department’s priorities away from its liberal bent under the Obama administration.
Sessions said in his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing that he would offer stronger support for law enforcement, and crack down on crime and illegal immigration while protecting the country from “radical Islamic terrorism” and cybercrime.
Sessions also will oversee the legal defense of Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order indefinitely blocking entry to the United States by Syrian refugees and suspending entry by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. The Justice Department’s challenge to a stay of that order by a Washington state court is pending in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday morning complained about the treatment the Republican Alabama senator has gotten from his Democratic colleagues.
“It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks,” McConnell said. “This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law. He believes strongly in the equal application of it to everyone.”
Democrats have used a variety of procedural tactics to slow the confirmation process for Sessions and other Trump nominees. During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) became the first to testify against a fellow senator up for a Cabinet post.
Led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democrats forced the Senate Republicans to break a filibuster on Sessions’ nomination midday Tuesday and then to hold 30 hours of debate before a confirmation vote.
For the second night in a row Tuesday, Democrats stayed up all night taking turns speaking against a Trump nominee, a tactic they used against Betsy DeVos, whom the Senate confirmed as education secretary on Tuesday after Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie vote.
In speech after speech, Democrats alleged that as the nation’s top law-enforcement official, Sessions wouldn’t serve as an independent check on Trump, and that he wouldn’t protect the rights of minorities, immigrants, women, and gay and lesbian people.
Some brought up the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1986 rejection of Sessions’ appointment to a U.S. district court in Alabama, after his staff alleged that Sessions as Alabama’s U.S. attorney called a black lawyer “boy” and called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American.”
At his recent hearing, Sessions strongly denied those allegations. “I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that . . . I was accused of.”
Democrats questioned whether Sessions could be independent, given his early and avid support for Trump during his campaign and his backing of Trump’s vow to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Senator Sessions has not made it clear that he would use his power as attorney general to stand up for the voiceless and the oppressed, or to stand up to the president when he’s wrong,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said she would vote against his nomination.
Manchin, who faces a tough election in 2018 in a state where 69 percent voted for Trump, broke with his Democratic colleagues by issuing a statement of support for Sessions the day he was nominated in December.