Flanked by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., became the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague in a confirmation hearing with a scorching criticism of attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions.
“The job of an attorney general requires a more courageous empathy than Sen. Sessions’s record demonstrates,” said Booker. “That record suggests that he won’t aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all of our citizens.”
Booker, the sole black Democrat in the Senate, had announced his plan to testify two days earlier. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team bracketed the testimony by quoting Booker’s praise for Sessions, when the two of them fought to get congressional gold medals for civil rights activists; as Booker sat behind the dais, Republicans also shared photos of Sessions marching at the 50th anniversary of the confrontation at Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge.
But Booker, who quickly acknowledged that he had praised Sessions as a colleague, said that it had been a “blessing and an honor” to work on the honors for civil rights activists. “One of them is sitting next to me today,” he said, referring to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who had also come to testify against Sessions.
Booker told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sessions’ voting record needed to be viewed on its own – critically. He cited Sessions’ votes on opposition to broad criminal justice reform “even at a time when the FBI director is speaking out against racial bias in policing,” and worried that he had “demonstrated a hostility” toward civil rights, voting rights, and LGBT rights in the pursuit of law-and-order policies.
“Law and order without justice is unobtainable,” said Booker. “The Alabama troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge were seeking law and order. The civil rights marchers were seeking justice and ultimately peace.”
This testimony, well-covered ahead of time, was delivered in front of just three Republicans. The third and final stage of the hearing process, it started at 1 p.m., while many members of the committee were tied up with other responsibilities. Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., stayed for Booker, but the latter two senators left when he was finished. There would have been little drama had the full committee membership been in their seats, as most had announced before the end of the hearing that they would vote for Sessions.
That became a sore point in an already-contentious process. In a scrum with reporters Tuesday night, Grassley said that Booker’s panel – which included testimony from two black Democratic leaders in the House and three black attorneys who knew and liked Sessions – was a later addition. But the third Democrat, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., suggested that the timing had been not just unfair but insulting.
“To have a senator, a House member, and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” said Richmond, prompting murmurs of agreement from a dozen Congressional Black Caucus members who had come to watch, including Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn.
As the hearing went on, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of the House and the longest-serving African American member in Congress’s history, issued a statement asking why Booker, Lewis and Richmond were “required to testify with non-Members of Congress” at the end of the hearing, when much of the media and many senators had packed up.
“I reject the lack of comity and respect afforded to my Congressional Black Caucus colleagues,” said Conyers. “As very busy Members of Congress with packed schedules, I believe Senator Booker, and Representatives Lewis and Richmond should have been able to provide their testimony on a member-only panel at the start of the hearing.”
Lewis, who in his 13th term has led Democrats in protests, did not mention the staging of the hearing, or much that had been drawn out over the two long days. Instead, he evoked his upbringing in rural Alabama and questioned whether Sessions’s view of the law would leave racial protections in place.
“There are those who wonder if Sen. Sessions’ calls for law and order mean today what they meant in Alabama when I was coming up,” said Lewis. “The rule of law was used to violate the civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, and people of color.”
Earlier in the day, at a lower-profile panel, Republicans had admonished some Sessions opponents for criticizing his record on voting rights and race. Cruz accused David Cole, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, of leaving information out of his group’s criticism of Sessions because it would have reflected that Sessions defended black voters who had been denied their rights. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had told Sessions on Tuesday that he was being described unfairly, told NAACP president Cornell Brooks that his organization’s voting report card seemed slanted against Republicans.
“Is that because we’re all racist, and they’re all perfect?” Graham said, indicating the Democrats on the committee who had high ACLU ratings.
When the hearing cleared out, Brooks said that Graham had misled by portraying the NAACP as politically biased.
“I’m trying to find a polite way to say that it’s completely ridiculous,” said Brooks. “We’ve been doing the report card since 1914, well before the senator was born. I, too, am from South Carolina, and I’d say that 100 years ago, Democrats were the ones with bad scores.”
A few steps away, Booker paused to take questions from a crush of reporters, including a question of whether he’d been pressured not to come.
“I don’t care about pressure,” said Booker. “I don’t care about criticism. When it comes to matters of conscience, I will always stand up.”
The hearing had been conducted in room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building, known as the Kennedy Caucus Room, as it was the place where John F. Kennedy announced his 1960 bid for president.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Weigel