Liberals anticipated fireworks on Day one of confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
But instead, they mostly saw an old tradition in Washington: senatorial courtesy.
The Alabama senator didn’t have an easy time of it during the over eight hours of testimony and question in the Judiciary Committee, but Democrats also didn’t draw blood to change the political dynamic. Liberals were hoping for more.
“The first day of Senator Sessions’ confirmation hearing proved that the rushed nature of the confirmation process places senatorial collegiality over the advice and consent responsibilities that are the Senate’s constitutional duty,” said a dismayed Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Henderson and others were watching to see if California Sen. Dianne Feinstein – the new top Democrat on the committee – was up to the task of holding Sessions’ feet to the fire. But Feinstein’s job was complicated by the fact that she was tasked with grilling a colleague who had worked for years with many members sitting on the dais.
Progressives credit Feinstein with a behind-the-scenes effort to push for documents and more information to complete Sessions’ questionnaire. And they were emboldened when she worked to ensure that members of the Congressional Black Caucus would be able to testify in a session on Wednesday. But some felt that the initial questions during the hearing – meant to set the tone — could have been more probing.
Speaking generally, Symone Sanders, a former spokeswoman for the Bernie Sanders campaign, said on CNN, that “some questions were soft” but she said that there was more testimony to come, referring to Wednesday’s expected testimony of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis.
“The Senate needs to further tease out Senator Sessions’ view,” Henderson said in a conference call with reporters. “In few instances, did we see the kind of in-depth question with follow up that would be needed to amplify the record.” Henderson is particularly critical of Senator Sessions for his views on voting rights issue.
Looking ahead to Supreme Court
Nan Aron, of the Alliance for Justice said the hearing showcased the “traditional courtesy Senators extend to one another”, but she said she expected a “radically different approach” for the upcoming Supreme Court hearing. “Senator Feinstein is as tough and as committed as they come, and the fate of the Supreme Court will be an important part of her legacy,” Aron said.
Tuesday’s hearing was interrupted on several occasions by protestors chanting to the senators at times “black lives matter” and “Senators do your job.”
It was Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley – in his opening statement – who made clear his theme for the day concerning Sessions: “We know him well,” he said.
And Sessions responded in kind. “You know who I am,” he told his Senate colleagues.
Feinstein, however, was quick to push back. She acknowledged that she had worked with him for years, which made the hearing “very difficult for me.”
But she stressed her job was not to evaluate him as a senator. It was to look at the attorney general job.
“There is much fear in this country,” she said, and stressed “deep concerns and anxieties.”
She made clear that an attorney general “does not investigate or prosecute at the direction of the president.”
When it was her turn to ask a first round of questions her focus was abortion and she tried to pin him down. Sessions confirmed that he believed that Roe v. Wade, an opinion he has said was “colossally erroneous”, was “established” and “settled for quite a long time.” But Feinstein didn’t probe.
CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin called Sessions’ statement significant, “but it also leaves a lot of room for the Justice Department to take and support steps that restrict the right to an abortion.”
Toobin pointed out the pending Supreme Court vacancy – which could change the legal calculus – and added “the federal government can do a lot to restrict abortion rights.”
Sessions gave a similar answer when asked about gay marriage. “The Supreme Court ruled on that,” he said. “The dissent dissented vigorously but it was 5-4 and a majority of the court has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America – I will follow that law. ”
Sarah Warbelow, the legal director of the Human Rights Campaign struck back.
“When an attorney qualifies that he will follow a decision by citing his opposition and noting the closeness of the vote, no one is reassured that the rule of law will be enforced,” she said in a statement.
“The real question is: if the composition of the court changes, would he seek to overturn the marriage decision? The next Attorney General will be asked to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ people in a wide range of contexts including future questions on how marriage equality affects other laws,” she said.