WASHINGTON — Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose nomination as attorney general has served as a fresh lightning rod for the new administration of President Trump, was narrowly confirmed Wednesday as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
The largely party line vote of 52-47, yet another reflection of the deep political divisions roiling the country, was marked by bitter recriminations from civil rights advocates and Democrat lawmakers who staged a second all-night debate to voice their opposition to a former colleague who spent more than two decades in the Senate. One member, Sessions, voted present.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the one Democrat to vote for Sessions.
Vice President Pence was expected to preside at Sessions' swearing in Thursday morning.
Sessions' bumpy road to confirmation as the 84th attorney general of the United States spanned a series of high political dramas that featured Trump's abrupt firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend the administration's disputed refugee ban in federal court and last night's extraordinary Senate confrontation in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was silenced by Republican leaders for her criticism of the nominee.
Warren was in the midst of reading from a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., who condemned Sessions' role as federal prosecutor in a controversial voting fraud prosecution of three black civil rights activists in Alabama, when she was suddenly barred from continuing.
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,'' Warren said, reading from the King letter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., interjected, saying that Warren violated an arcane Senate rule against “impugning the motives” of another member. The Senate later voted to support McConnell's contention, effectively shutting down Warren.
"I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate," Warren said before the ruling.
The incident only served to energize a debate that continued late into Wednesday evening, as Democrats paraded to the Senate podium to offer their support for Warren and question Sessions' fitness to lead the Justice Department.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., took up Warren's cause and continued reading from King's scathing letter. Udall's remarks, however, encountered not further challenge by Republicans, nor were the statements of Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who called the debate clause a "gag rule.''
Sessions is poised to take over the sprawling Justice Department whose interim leadership was upended last week when Trump abruptly fired Yates for directing department lawyers not to defend the new administration's executive order which suspends immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
A strong supporter of Trump and the lawmaker who helped shape the new administration’s hard-line immigration policy, Sessions’ tenure will be immediately confronted with multiple court challenges to the controversial order. A federal appeals court is expected to rule at any time on whether to strike down a temporary restraining order currently blocking enforcement of the administration's travel ban.
In recent days, Democrats also have voiced deep concerns about Sessions’ independence from the White House and a president who drew on Sessions’ counsel and support throughout a bitter primary and general election campaign season that featured anti-immigration rhetoric at virtually every stop.
"I am seriously concerned about Jeff Sessions' willingness to say no to the president when he needs to,'' Hirono said Wednesday, adding that she would vote against her colleague.
Last week, before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Sessions on a 11-9 party-line vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., offered a blistering critique of the nominee, saying that he was "alarmed'' about Sessions' deep links to the president and "his open hostility to bedrock civil rights laws.''
"Unless publicly boxed in, I am afraid Sen. Sessions' default position will be to protect the administration,'' Whitehouse told the panel.
Meanwhile, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., continued to raise questions Wednesday about Sessions' record of involvement in civil rights cases while a U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala. Franken said the nominee presented an inaccurate account of his involvement and support of such cases.
"The fact of the matter is that Sen. Sessions misrepresented his record,'' Franken said. "Sen. Sessions would not have tolerated that kind of misrepresentation from a nominee to this committee and we shouldn't either."
Debate has been the only weapon available to Democrats in their fight against Sessions, as Republicans hold the Senate majority and held the line against any break in the ranks before Wednesday's vote.
"What I find particularly egregious is the fact that Democrats have slowed down and slow-walked and obstructed the nomination or confirmation of one of the president’s national security Cabinet members, and that would be Sen. Jeff Sessions, his attorney general,'' Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, urging Sessions' confirmation .
“The fact that they’ve drug this out and made it impossible for the Department of Justice, an important part of our national security team, to remain without a leader is completely inexcusable,'' Cornyn said.
In impassioned speech on the Senate floor, the Texas senator also took aim at the hours of blistering criticism aimed at Sessions by his own fellow lawmakers.
"I yearn for the day when the Senate, and the country as a whole, would pull back from the abyss of personal attacks,'' Cornyn said, attributing the unusual bitterness to Democrats' continuing anger at having lost the White House.
McConnell, whose Tuesday night exchange with Warren appeared to re-awaken the opposition to Sessions' nomination, said the subsequent debate Wednesday unleashed unwarranted criticism on the nominee.
"It's been tough to watch what this colleague has been put through,'' McConnell said.
Recounting the nominee's rural Alabama upbringing when he was known simply as "Buddy,'' McConnell ended the debate for good Wednesday night describing how Sessions would carry that humble background to the fifth-floor suite at the Justice Department.
"Our colleague wants to be attorney general for all America,'' McConnell said.