The Senate Judiciary Committee will welcome its first African American members in this century after Democrats added Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to the panel that handles judicial nominations and appointments to the Justice Department.
Harris, a former attorney general of California, was seen as a likely candidate to join the committee after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced his resignation late last year. The appointment of Booker was more of a surprise, coming one year after Booker testified against the appointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, a rare move for one senator to make against another. Sometime after that hearing, Booker learned that he and Harris were “second and third in line” if openings came up.
“The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to the ideals of civil rights and equal justice for all,” Booker said Tuesday in a statement announcing his appointment. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.”
No African American senator has sat on the Judiciary Committee since the 1990s, when Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, became the first black woman elected to the Senate. There had been pressure on Democrats to elevate Harris; in the end, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opted to elevate both of the Senate’s black Democrats.
Harris’s appointment was possible because Democrat Doug Jones’s victory last month in Alabama shrank the Republican advantage on two committees. (Booker Republicans now have one-seat advantages on the Judiciary Committee (11 to 10) and Finance Committee (14 to 13); Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is in his second term, will join the latter committee.
Jones and Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), the newest members of the Senate, divvied up Franken’s former assignments among their new ones. Smith will join the Agriculture, Energy and Indian Affairs committees. Smith and Jones will both join the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, commonly known as HELP.
Jones will also join the Banking and Homeland Security committees, as well as the Committee on Aging, saying in a statement that “these assignments provide me with an avenue to begin working for the people of Alabama on issues such as creating long-term funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and ensuring our nation’s safety from those who would do us harm.”
The other two Democrats affected by the reshuffle are Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), who joins the Commerce Committee, and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a new member of Environment and Public Works. Tester is up for reelection in 2018, and Van Hollen runs the Senate Democrats’ efforts to take control of the chamber.