AG nominee Sessions finds support, opposition on second day of hearing

By Doug G. Ware  |  Updated Jan. 11, 2017 at 5:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- For a second day in a row, the issue of racism was at the center of the confirmation hearing for attorney general designate Jeff Sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The panel began its second day of the hearing where it left off Tuesday, with inquiries about Sessions' past views on racial matters and whether they pose an obstacle to his becoming the top law enforcement official in the United States.

Tuesday, the Alabama senator faced more than 10 hours of questioning by committee members -- much of it regarding accusations against him that date back three decades, when he was denied a federal judgeship appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The hearing ended at 2 p.m. EST, and Sessions' nomination will now be put to a vote in the full Senate -- if it's approved by the judiciary committee -- where it would need only a simple majority. The panel can recommend to the Senate approval or rejection of Sessions' candidacy, or make no recommendation at all. The judiciary panel is comprised of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats.

Wednesday, the committee heard testimony from several acquaintances of Sessions' -- including three prominent black U.S. congressmen, who all recommended against his confirmation.

"I know it is exceptional for a senator to testify against another senator nominated for a Cabinet position," Rep. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said at Wednesday's hearing, which was attended by the Congressional Black Caucus. "You know just how deeply motivated I am by the many issues our next attorney general will heavily influence."

Booker became the first senator to testify against a Senate colleague at a Cabinet confirmation hearing.

"In the choice of standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose my conscious and country," he added. "I am literally sitting here because of people -- marchers in Alabama and volunteer lawyers in New Jersey -- who saw it as their affirmative duty to pursue justice, to fight discrimination, to stand up for those who are marginalized.

"Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job, to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens," he continued. "In fact, at numerous times in his career he has demonstrated a hostility towards these convictions."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, shakes hands with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as he prepares to testify Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee in day two of its confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions. Booker said Sessions "has not demonstrated a commitment" to civil rights, equal rights and justice for all citizens. Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI

Booker also said he believes Sessions has a poor track record on rights for women, immigrants and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Sessions defended himself Tuesday against the racism allegations -- classifying as "damnably false" assertions that he sympathized with hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, and sought to intimidate black voters in his failed 1985 voting fraud prosecution in Alabama involving three local black activists.

"We must continue to move forward and never back," Sessions said.

The Alabama senator's words, though, have not been enough to convince some of his colleagues in Congress.

"We can pretend that the law is blind, we can pretend that is even-handed, but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent, to help them with unfairness and how the law is written and enforced," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was born in Alabama, said in his testimony. "There was no way to escape or deny the chokehold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us. ... I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation."

"We have come a distance, we have made progress, but we are not there yet," he continued, passionately. "There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don't want to go back. We want to move forward.

"It doesn't matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who is going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help. ... We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us -- not just for some of us."

Sessions has been accused of making racist remarks in the past, and branding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and American Civil Liberties Union as "un-American" groups -- a claim he denied on Tuesday.

Multiple witnesses Wednesday opposed Sessions as attorney general, but not all of them.

"I'm not testifying as someone who just met him yesterday," William Smith, Sessions' former chief counsel, who is black, said. "I have not seen the slightest hint of racism because it does not exist."

"I've known Jeff Sessions .. he believes in law and order for all the people," Jesse Seroyer, a black investigator for Sessions in the U.S. attorney's office, said. "The man that I know is a decent and honest and respectful man."

"I got the feeling ... that the allegations that had been spread [about racism] through the press weren't true," attorney Willie Huntley, who said he declined an offer to be deputy U.S. attorney general under Sessions, said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., did not concur.

"Each and every senator who casts a vote to confirm Sen. Sessions will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator in an effort to move this country backwards, towards a darker period in our shared history," he said. "So I ask you all, where do you stand? It is clear from Sen. Sessions' record where he stands."

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