Senate confirms Sen. Jeff Sessions as next attorney general

Last Updated Feb 8, 2017 10:16 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general in the Trump administration despite fierce Democratic opposition to the Alabama Republican over his record on civil rights and immigration. 

The 52-47 nearly party-line vote capped weeks of divisive battles over Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump and one of the Senate’s most conservative lawmakers. After the vote was announced, Sessions’ Republican colleagues applauded the outcome while barely a handful of Democrats did the same.

In a post-vote valedictory speech, Sessions alluded to the bitter partisanship and wished for more collegiality.

“Denigrating people who disagree with us, I think, is not a healthy trend for our body,” he said.

After the vote, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to our new Attorney General, @SenatorSessions!”

Since Trump tapped Sessions, Democrats have laced into the lawmaker, casting him as too cozy with Trump and too harsh on immigrants. They asserted he wouldn’t do enough to protect voting rights of minorities, protections for gays and the legal right of women to obtain an abortion. They fear immigrants in the country illegally won’t receive due process with Sessions as the top law enforcement officer.

“His record raises doubts about whether he can be a champion for those who need this office most and it also raises doubts about whether he can curb unlawful overreach” by Trump, said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. 

Sessions was expected to be confirmed despite Senate Democrats’ opposition to their colleague.  

Republicans say Sessions has demonstrated over a long career in public service -- and two decades in the Senate -- that he possesses integrity and honesty and is committed to justice.

“He’s honest. He’s fair. He’s been a friend to many of us, on both sides of the aisle,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks. This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law. He believes strongly in the equal application of it to everyone.”

Sessions won unanimous backing from Senate Republicans but picked up the support of just one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“I have known Jeff for more than a decade and he is not only my colleague but I consider him a friend,” Manchin said in a statement on his vote to confirm Sessions. “After working with him in many capacities during my time in the United States Senate, I believe I can work with Senator Sessions and that is why I voted to make him the next Attorney General of the United States.” 

“Jeff’s extensive career in public service and legal expertise make him qualified to be our country’s next Attorney General,” Manchin said.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to name a replacement for Sessions as early as Thursday. Bentley has named six finalists for the Senate appointment, including state Attorney General Luther Strange and GOP Rep. Robert Aderholt.

Strange is considered a leading candidate for the job since Bentley interviewed potential replacements for state attorney general, according to people close to the process. However, Bentley’s office has said he has not made a decision.   

Wednesday’s vote came amid rising tension between Republicans controlling the chamber over delaying tactics by minority Democratic that have left fewer of Trump’s picks in place than President Barack Obama had eight years ago. Democrats no longer have filibuster power over Cabinet picks, however, after changing Senate rules when they controlled the chamber in 2013. 

Next up for the Senate is Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., Trump’s pick for health secretary. A final vote on Price could come late Thursday and success seemed certain.   

Democrats have solidly opposed Price, a staunch advocate of repealing Obama’s health care overhaul and reshaping and scaling back the Medicare and Medicaid programs that provide health care to older and low-income people. 

But they’ve mostly accused Price, a wealthy former orthopedic surgeon, of conflicts of interest by acquiring stocks in health care companies and pushing legislation that could help those firms. 

They’ve especially targeted his acquisition of shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm that’s said Price got a special insider’s deal. Price, who has said he learned of the opportunity from a fellow lawmaker, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., had testified to Congress that the shares were available to all investors. 

“If I were a prosecutor, I’d say this case has real potential,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.   

This week has featured overnight, round-the-clock Senate sessions as GOP leaders are grinding through a thicket of controversial picks. 

Epitomizing the sharp-edged partisanship surrounding confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was given a rare rebuke Tuesday evening for quoting Coretta Scott King, widow of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in her 1986 criticism of Sessions. Republicans invoked an arcane rule to silence Warren.   

“Did you expect to get reprimanded?” CBS News asked Warren

“No I did not,” she said. 

Warren’s transgression was reading aloud from a 1986 letter Coretta Scott King wrote about Sessions. Republican leaders accused Warren of impugning a fellow senator.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted,” top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said.

Quoting King technically put Warren in violation of Senate rules for “impugning the motives” of Sessions, though senators have said far worse stuff. And Warren was reading from a letter that was written 10 years before Sessions was even elected to the Senate.

Still, McConnell invoked the rules. After a few parliamentary moves, the GOP-controlled Senate voted to back him up.

On Wednesday, defiant Democrats took turns reading the letter themselves, with no repercussions.  

King wrote that as an acting federal prosecutor in Alabama, Sessions used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”

Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship was rejected three decades ago by the Senate Judiciary Committee after it was alleged that as a federal prosecutor he had called a black attorney “boy” and had said organizations like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union were un-American.

At his hearing last month, Sessions said he had never harbored racial animus, saying he had been falsely caricatured.