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Trump's Attorney General Pick Sen. Jeff Sessions Faces Confirmation Hearings

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) -- President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general is facing hours of questioning as his confirmation hearing opens in the Senate.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is appearing in front of his peers on the Republican-led Judiciary Committee Tuesday. Witnesses who support and oppose his nomination will testify on Wednesday.

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In his opening statement, Sessions said the office of attorney general "is not a political position'' and anyone who holds it must be faithful to laws and the Constitution.

"I revere the Constitution and I'm committed to the rule of law," he said. "I believe in fairness and impartiality and equal justice under the law."

He spoke of a rise in crime across the country, specifically in Chicago, along with a heroin epidemic and vowed to support police.

"In the last several years, law enforcement has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors," he said.

Democrats have raised concerns about Sessions, specifically when it comes to civil rights. In 1986, he was accused of making racist comments. He's also been accused of sympathizing with the Klu Klux Klan.

"There was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn't true, and it was very painful," Sessions said.

"I did not harbor the kind of animosity and race discrimination ideas that I was accused of," he added. "I did not."

About the KKK, he said, "I abhor the Klan...and its hateful ideology."

He said he understands the history of civil rights "and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters.''

Civil liberties advocates have seized on Sessions' voting record and his appearances before groups that espouse harsh views on Muslims and immigrants.

He was rejected for a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee 30 years ago amid accusations of racial insensitivity.

"I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen," Sessions insisted.

He reiterated Trump's position of stronger vetting of potential terrorists, but he denounced a Muslim ban.

"I do not support the idea that Muslims should be denied entry to the United States,'' he said.

Sessions also expressed his support for keeping open the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility, saying he believes it's a safe place to house suspected terrorists captured overseas and should continue to be used.

When asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley how he would handle potential investigations of Hillary Clinton's email server, Sessions said if confirmed, he would recuse himself from any probe.

"Did you ever chant 'lock her up?'" Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, asked.

"No, I did not. I don't think," Sessions replied.

He said, however, because of some of the comments he made during the presidential election about the matter, "the proper thing to do would be to recuse myself.''

Democrats have also cited Sessions' extremely conservative positions. Sessions vowed to uphold all laws, even those he personally opposes.

"Do you agree that the issue of same sex marriage is settled law?," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, asked.

"Five justices on the Supreme Court ruled," Sessions replied. "I will follow that decision."

He couldn't avoid questions about some of Trump's more controversial comments.

"Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?" Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, asked.

"Yes," Sessions replied.

Republicans countered the criticism of Sessions, believing he is qualified for the position.

"He is a man of honor and integrity, dedicated to the faithful and fair enforcement of the law," Grassley said.

In an unprecedented move, Senate colleague Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, will testify against Sessions.

"Given the state of a lot of challenges we have with out policing, a lot of challenges we have around race relations, gay and lesbian issues, it's a very consequential moment," Booker told reporters.

As the hearings began, several demonstrators, including members of Code Pink, interrupted Sessions during his opening statement.

Two men wearing Klu Klux Klan costumes were also removed from the hearing after they caused a disruption. As security took them out of the room, they yelled, "you can't arrest me, I am white!'' and "white people own this government!''

Retired Marine General John Kelly also faced senators for his confirmation hearing to head the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that would be closely involved in the president-elect's pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border.

"A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job. It has to be really a layered defense," Kelly said.

(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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