By elevating Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to their top spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans have selected their chief inquisitor for President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee: a Southern, white conservative man who has drawn fire for racially insensitive comments in the past.
Democrats like how this is looking.
"Sessions will help galvanize and crystallize why we need a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate," a Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told POLITICO Tuesday.
Sessions, who easily won reelection to a third term in November, wins praise from both Democrats and Republicans for his cordiality and integrity in his dealings with them. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) notes that Sessions was one of the few Republicans to support Eric Holder's nomination as the nation's first African-American attorney general.
But in the wake of back-to-back wave election losses, Republicans have stressed the need to broaden their base of support. Democrats, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to cement the notion that the GOP is a regional party dominated by white Southern men. With Sessions leading the Republican charge in the coming confirmation hearings, Democrats will have one more way to make that case.
"What may play in parts of Alabama may not play in other parts of the country as the manifestation of the rebirth of the Republican Party," said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.
Sessions said Tuesday that his own bitter experience as a federal court nominee - the Judiciary Committee rejected him in 1986 - will make him more sensitive to the need to confine attacks against an Obama nominee to matters of policy, rather than personality or personal background.
"What I found was that charges come flying in from right and left that are unsupported and false. It's very, very difficult for a nominee to push back," Sessions said. "So I think we have a high responsibility to base any criticisms that we have on a fair and honest statement of the facts and that nominees should not be subjected to distortions of their record."
During the 1986 confirmation process, Sessions was accused of unfairly targeting black civil rights workers for election fraud charges as a federal prosecutor. A black lawyer under Sessions in the U.S. attorney's office accused him of saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "OK" until he found out some of its members were "pot smokers."
Sessions said the statement was meant as a joke and unfairly taken out of context.
But the confirmation process also revealed that Sessions had once called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American" and "communist-inspired."
Sessions, who spoke with Obama on Tuesday about the Supreme Court vacancy, told POLITICO that those comments were made in a private conversation he had with an African-American on his staff in the U.S. attorney's office - and that they were taken out of context.
"I've not been a part of that. I opposed George Wallace in college," he said. "My record has never been that way. I don't believe in that, but I am a believer in the law and in equal treatment."
The old charges against Sessions began flying again this week when he became ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. This week, TalkingPointsMemo called him a "crypto-segregationist."
"That is absolutely not true. I've never supported anything like that," Sessions said. "As a United States attorney, I bet I filed 20 or 30 lawsuits to desegregate schools to maintain our consent decrees, working hand-in-glove with the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice for 12 years. So that's just ot true."
"I believe everybody has equal rights under the law, and I don't think the rich or the powerful ought to be given an advantage," he added. "I don't think people should have a disadvantage because of their religion or the color of their skin. That's horrible, and it's un-American. We had some difficulties in the South, very deep problems, real discrimination that went on for centuries - for a century or more - and it took time to work through that, which has made the nation so much better."
Sen. Arlen Specter - whose switch to the Democratic Party opened the ranking Republican spot on the Judiciary Committee - said Tuesday that he regretted his vote against Sessions' nomination in 1986. He says he's learned since then that "Sen. Sessions is egalitarian."
Specter's former colleagues in the GOP also took strong exception to the attacks over Sessions' racial record.
Asked about criticisms of Sessions' record on race, Senate minority whip and Judiciary Committee member Jon Kyl of Arizona said: "Come on, I'm not going to respond to idiotic questions like that. That's an affront. ... He's being attacked because guys like you ask questions like that. That is an affront to civility. Jeff Sessions has been a very valuable member of that committee."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Republicans would fight back hard if Democrats or liberal groups try to make the Supreme Court confirmation process about Sessions' record, rather than about Obama's nominee to replace Justice David Souter.
"If people try to go down that road, it'll blow up in their face, because Jeff is a good guy," Graham said. "My hope is that our Democratic colleagues - if you start listening to the bloggers - if we're going to let the bloggers run the country, then the country's best days are behind us."
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was forced to step down from his post over a racially loaded comment, said the pre-emptive strike against Sessions is unfair and that he should be given a chance to perform as ranking member. Lott added that with so much at stake, no nominee should expect "soft treatment" from the Judiciary Committee.
"It's clear evidence of hypocrisy ... and they go up and dredge up these recycled attacks," Lott said.
But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a moderate who has called for the party to broaden its tent, suggested Sessions tread delicately because his actions will reflect on the entire party.
"I hope that anybody in any of these positions, obviously, understands ... what impressions it creates for the party," Snowe said. "You know, if you stick to the issues and do it in a constructive way, ... it can make all the difference."
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Sessions will ultimately be judged by his actions.
"It's more than that he is just simply a conservative white male from the South," Menendez said. "I think broader than that is the positions that Sen. Sessions takes. It will be interesting to see, if we get a woman nominee to the Supreme Court, what his position will be."
Leahy, for his part, said he had spoken to Sessions about the need "to work together" on confirming the nominee, whoever he or she is, as soon as possible, and he vowed that that person would be sitting on the Supreme Court when the fall session begins on Oct. 1.
Leahy said that he and Sessions "get along just fine," and he added that Sessions "keeps his word when he gives it to you," which is high praise from one senator to another.
The Vermont Democrat, who has already consulted with Obama about possible replacements for Souter, suggested that he, Sessions, Senate MajorityLeader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) meet with Obama soon to discuss the matter.
By John Bresnahan, Manu Raju