The GOP's Supreme Court Point Man

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on "Face The Nation," Dec. 7, 2008.
This story was written by John Bresnahan and Manu Raju.

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."