Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) should have been a tough sell in the Senate.
President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, opposed President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and led the opposition to a 2013 bipartisan immigration bill. He was also denied a federal judgeship 30 years ago — by the Senate — amid allegations that as U.S. attorney he had improperly prosecuted black voting rights activists and used racially intemperate language.
But here’s something else to know about Sessions: He is one of the more well-liked members of the Senate, a place that still retains elements of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. He is genial, respectful and patient toward colleagues and staff. And that has given fellow Republicans and even some Democrats reason not to scrutinize the more unsavory allegations of his political history.
Take Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who, under other circumstances, might be a target for Democrats to peel off in hopes of defeating Sessions’s nomination.
Instead, she’s his lead spokeswoman.
Sessions and Collins may both be Republicans, but otherwise they could not be more different. He is a Methodist who grew up in a small town 100 miles from Alabama’s Gulf Coast. She was raised Catholic in tiny Caribou, Maine, less than 20 miles from the Canadian border. He speaks in a lilting twang; she with New England deliberativeness.
While Sessions was building a voting record in the Senate as a rock-ribbed conservative, Collins has most often been on the opposite side — the leading moderate of her generation who refused to vote for Trump and patterned her career after fellow Mainer Margaret Chase Smith, who made national headlines in the early 1950s by standing up to Joe McCarthy (and was the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate).
On Tuesday, Collins will introduce Sessions to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a full-throated endorsement for his nomination as attorney general.
“He’s a decent individual with a strong commitment to the rule of law. He’s a leader of integrity,” Collins said in an interview, dismissing attacks from liberal activists about his conservative views and his actions as a young prosecutor. “I think the attacks against him are not well-founded and are unfair.”
Collins’s high-profile endorsement signals the uphill fight Sessions’s opponents face in trying to deny his bid to become the nation’s chief law enforcement officer with the sort of broadside attacks that have become common in confirmation hearings. Despite holding some of the most conservative positions in the Senate, Sessions is a heavy favorite to win confirmation.
“I genuinely like him,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. Coons still might vote against Sessions because of the “stark differences” between the two on policy, but they are friends.
This has frustrated the liberal coalition of civil rights groups leading the opposition. In 1986, this same coalition successfully swayed the committee to reject Sessions for a federal judgeship. Rather than slink into retirement, Sessions won a Senate seat in 1996 and has served ever since on the Judiciary Committee, whose members are now tasked with voting on his fitness for office.
“You should be sitting in that room prepared to learn about this person, who you may have seen running next to you on the treadmill in the Senate gym, who you may have had lunch with, whose family you may even know, but whose record as it relates to the critical issue of civil rights you might not know,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Friday during a conference call with coalition members.
Democrats aren’t about to give Sessions a pass.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the former committee chairman, wants to question him about his views on religious freedom based on a committee vote Sessions cast a few years ago. Coons went home for the weekend with a 300-page briefing book on Sessions’s record, ranging from civil liberties to his personal financial investments. Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, will be watching questions about the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which some viewed as torture.
But most senators tend to see Sessions in the same way Collins does — as a friendly man who never broke his word to them. Many have prayed with him and traveled with him on official overseas trips. Almost no one wants to review the original allegations against him during his 1986 nomination; for the most part, they don’t think that he is the racist that some have painted — at least not anymore.
“I don’t know the dynamics of what happened then, but I can speak to Jeff’s character in the 20 years that I’ve known him,” Collins said.
The dynamic harks back to that surrounding the late Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose early career was defined and grievously wounded by the scandal resulting from a car crash on Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts in 1969. Kennedy, who was driving, swam free and left the scene; his 28-year-old female companion died inside the car.
Kennedy’s Senate colleagues found plenty of fodder in his liberal record to use against him during debates, but they never yelled “Chappaquiddick!” in floor debates or committee rooms. They liked Kennedy; they trusted him. His political opponents chose to fight him on the merits of the moment, not on his long-ago past.
One senator who has wanted to focus more on Sessions’s past on race is Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the chamber’s only black Republican.
“I think judging a person on 30-year-old history is questionable. Eliminating or exempting 30-year-old history is probably not wise as well,” Scott said. “So, making sure that you understand what it actually was and who he is, has been an important part of what I’ve tried to do.”
Scott hosted Sessions in mid-December in North Charleston with activists who peppered him with questions about federal prosecution of a police officer who fatally shot a black man in the back.
“The attorney general’s position has more impact on communities of color than perhaps any other nominee,” Scott said, adding that he was still considering the nomination.
By and large, senators want to focus on other topics. And there’s plenty there to discuss, from how Sessions would handle the deportation of illegal immigrants to allegations that in 1995, while serving as state attorney general, he supported the use of chain gangs for prisoner work.
Coons suggested that Sessions had so many staunchly conservative positions in “the recent past” that there was little need to relitigate the 1980s.
He spent an hour with Sessions on Thursday talking about legal philosophy. Coons and Sessions have spent the past six years talking at the Senate’s weekly Bible study and working out together in the gym.
Collins and Sessions have had plenty of debates — in public, in closed caucus meetings and at the many dinners of the Senate class of 1996. They were almost always on opposing sides, but she learned to trust his consistency.
Collins announced in August that she would not vote for Trump. But when Sessions asked her to introduce him Tuesday — usually the task of a home-state colleague — Collins happily accepted the role for a friend of 20 years.
“He’s the same person,” she said.