Battle over race returns to Capitol with Sessions' bid to become AG

Story highlights

  • Many Democrats are already disturbed about racially insensitive comments Sessions may have made
  • But Sessions' political ties to Trump and Senate Republican leaders could help him

Washington (CNN)Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions is preparing to face fresh scrutiny for a decades' old charge he made racially-charged comments while a US Attorney in his home state of Alabama.

The allegations cost him a job as a federal judge in 1986 and have the potential to sink his nomination to be attorney general under President-elect Donald Trump. To survive, he will need to carefully distance himself from the damaging charges and deftly manage how his Senate colleagues -- and the public -- react to them.
    It won't be easy.
    Many Democrats already are deeply disturbed by the allegations that Sessions may have called an African-American lawyer "boy" and accused the NAACP and ACLU of being "un-American." They promise to re-investigate the charges to determine if they are still relevant. But Democrats are equally concerned about fourth-term senator's current views on immigration and border control, which they consider strident and racially-biased.
    They worry that in the sensitive post as the top law enforcement official in the country, Sessions may not treat all people equally under law and already some Democrats privately want to defeat him.
    "While many of us have worked with Senator Sessions closely and know him to be a staunch advocate for his beliefs, the process will remain the same: a fair and complete review of the nominee. While Senator Sessions and I differ on a great many issues, I am committed to a full and fair process," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who will be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee next year when it holds confirmation hearings for Sessions, who also sits on the committee.
    In 2009, Sessions told CNN's Dana Bash that his 1986 confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee -- a contentious affair where he clashed repeatedly with Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and other Democrats -- was "really heartbreaking to me."
    Visibly upset in the television interview, the earnest senator pleaded his case.
    "That was not fair. That was not accurate. Those were false charges and distortions of anything that I did, and it really was not. I never had those kinds of views, and I was caricatured in a way that was not me," he said.
    The question is whether Session's heartfelt appeal that he was a victim of wrongful allegations and not the perpetrator of racially-insensitive conduct can convince senators to confirm him. The haze of time and distance from the events may assist Sessions, especially with many of the players of the 1986 drama no longer in the Senate.

    Political connections

    Sessions' political ties to Trump and Senate Republican leaders could help him too. He's a fierce defender of the President-elect and was the first senator to endorse him. Trump said he could have any job he wanted -- and he mulled becoming secretary of defense before settling on AG.
    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he "strongly supports" the nomination and promised a swift confirmation process for him. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, noting that Sessions was once the top Republican on the committee, said he is "confident he would be reported favorably out of the committee."
    Also helping Sessions are the new Senate rules that will allow him to be confirmed with the support of just 51 senators, not the supermajority 60 that were required until recently. That means Republicans can confirm Sessions without any Democratic support.
    Sessions, who will want to be confirmed with bipartisan support, will point Democrats to comments from the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who in 1986 was one of only two GOP members of the Judiciary Committee to vote against Sessions' nomination to the federal bench. In 2009, as Specter was leaving the Republican Party and joining the Democratic caucus, he said he "regretted" that vote.
    "Because I have found that Sen. Sessions is egalitarian," Specter told reporters.
    Defending Sessions' record on civil rights issues, Trump spokesman Jason Miller noted Friday that Session had voted for a 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act, had voted to confirm Eric Holder -- who is black -- as attorney general, and voted to give civil rights legend Rosa Parks the Congressional Gold Medal.
    As an example of the Trump team readying for a battle, a public relations firm sent reporters pictures of Sessions attending the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and holding hands with Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia. The release said the photos are 'Worth 1,000 words" and the Sessions' critics may not want the photos to be seen.

    Race and the Capitol

    The difficult topic of race relations is never far from the surface in the Capitol, where momentous battles over slavery and civil rights were fought out on the House and Senate floors. Today, lawmakers remain divided over questions about police shootings of black Americans, voting rights and even the appropriateness of Confederate imagery in the historic building.
    Sessions is certainly not the first senator to grapple with racial issues but still advance his career.
    Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man before serving 51 years in the Senate. Byrd repeatedly apologized for his membership in the group -- calling it the "greatest mistake of my life" -- and rose to become majority leader and one of the most respected members of the body.
    Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, ran for president as a segregationist in 1948 and led a record-breaking 24 hour filibuster of a civil rights bill in 1957. Through his 48 years in the Senate, he took steps towards racial reconciliation and today a room in the Capitol is named for him. (Although aides will work to ensure that the bust of the controversial senator is not visible when that room is used for TV interviews.)
    One man who was unable to escape a racially-based political maelstrom, is former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. In 2002, at a birthday party for 100-year-old Thurmond, Lott said the country "wouldn't' have had all these problems over the years" had Thurmond won the White House in 1948.
    He was out of a job in a matter of weeks.
    Lott's former aide, Ron Bonjean, told CNN that his boss really lost his job because he was in a power struggle with President George W. Bush, not because of the off-handed, impolitic comment at a birthday party.
    "He stepped into the fray not realizing the grave political situation he was in. Not realizing the Bush administration was out to get him beyond the comments he made about Strom Thurmond, for which he apologized several times," Bonjean said. "It was exacerbated by the Bush administration, which saw an opportunity to put in a new majority leader that would be more responsive to their needs."
    Bonjean, a longtime Capitol Hill aide and now a political strategist, had thoughts on what Sessions should do if Democrats bring up his alleged old remarks.
    "He needs to be very clear about what he thinks about race in America today and that everyone is equal under the law in his eyes and disavow anything that could be construed as comments that would showcase otherwise. You have to do that straight away. It's a very dangerous situation when you're trying to parse your comments," Bonjean said.