President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to lead the departments of Justice and Homeland Security will appear before Senate commitees Tuesday to kick off what is likely to be a contentious confirmation process.
Top transition officials, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are citing a potential double standard as some Democratic lawmakers seek a delay in advance of a packed schedule of confirmation hearings.
Eight years ago, the Senate confirmed seven Cabinet-level nominees the day of Obama’s inauguration, including top picks like Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security secretary. Hillary Clinton was confirmed as secretary of state the following day.
Trump allies are optimistic he will get a comparable number confirmed from the outset — Trump himself predicted Monday, “I think they’ll all pass” — but are warning Democrats they’ll suffer politically if they throw the brakes on the process.
Democrats don’t have the power to block the nomination of either Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General or retired Marine Gen. John Kelly to head DHS, since Republicans control the Senate and only need a simple majority to confirm both men.
However, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are expected to try and paint Sessions as being out of the mainstream on issues critical to the party’s core voters — Hispanics, African Americans and women — ahead of the 2018 election cycle.
Sessions has been a leading advocate not only for cracking down on illegal immigration, but also for slowing all legal immigration, increasing mass deportations and giving more scrutiny to those entering the United States. He vehemently opposed the bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate passed in 2013 that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who worked with Republicans to craft the immigration legislation, indicated last week that he would have a hard time supporting Sessions, saying “he has been more anti-immigration than just about any other single member of Congress.”
In 1986, Sessions was nominated to the federal bench by then-President Ronald Reagan, but was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee over allegations that he had called a black attorney “boy” — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”
Last week, the NAACP staged a sit-in at one of Sessions’ Alabama offices, and its legal defense fund said it was “inconceivable that he should be entrusted with the oversight of our civil rights laws.”
Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator in Alabama, points to cases Sessions pursued as a prosecutor against civil rights activists in the 1980s. “They called them voter fraud cases,” said Sanders, who won acquittals for the defendants. “I called them voter persecution cases.”
However, Albert Turner Jr., the son of two of those defendants recently said he believed Sessions “is not a racist” and “was simply doing his job” when he pursued the cases.
Supporters describe Sessions as a man of integrity who fought for desegregation during his career as a local GOP leader, prosecutor and elected official.
As U.S. attorney, Sessions’ office investigated and helped secure convictions in the 1981 Ku Klux Klan lynching of Michael Donald, a black teenager found hanging from a tree.
Greg Griffin, a black Alabama judge who worked as a state attorney when Sessions was Alabama attorney general, told the Associated Press over the weekend that Sessions “always treated me with respect” and called him “one of the best bosses I ever had.”
While in the Senate, Sessions voted to confirm Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder, the first black man to lead the Justice Department. He also worked with Democratic colleagues on efforts to combat prison rape and to reduce federal sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, saying the gap unfairly targeted the “African-American community simply because that is where crack is most often used.”
Kelly, who is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the full Senate, would be the first non-civilian to head DHS since the department was created in 2002. He is expected to be questioned closely about his views on border security.
Trump famously vowed to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico when he announced his run for president, and stuck to that vow throughout the campaign.