WASHINGTON (CN) - Three prominent black lawmakers gave impassioned pleas Wednesday for the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as next U.S. attorney general.
Speaking at the end of a two-day confirmation hearing, civil-rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis joined Sen. Cory Booker and head of the Congressional Black Caucus Cedric Richmond in blasting Sessions' record on civil and voting rights. Americans need an attorney general committed to protecting minority groups, they said.
"The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country and this demands a more courageous empathy than Senator Sessions' record indicates," said Booker, whose testimony broke longstanding Senate tradition.
Booker addressed his virtually unprecedented opposition to a colleague's appointment in his statement, saying when presented with a choice between doing what he sees as right for the country and Senate tradition he would always choose to do what he sees as right.
None of the lawmakers took questions from the committee as other witnesses at the hearing had done, but rather were limited to five-minute statements before a sparse gathering of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During his testimony Lewis passionately recalled the march on Selma, in which he participated, as well as his experience growing up in the segregated South and his battles to earn the right to vote. He spoke favorably of the Voting Rights Act, a law that has been at the center of Sessions' confirmation hearing because the Alabama Republican praised a Supreme Court decision that gutted it.
"We can pretend that the law is blind, we can pretend that it is even-handed, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent to help them deal with unfairness in how the law is written and how it is enforced," Lewis said.
He warned the committee that, while the country has come a long way since his childhood, "there are forces that want to take us to another place." Lewis wondered how Sessions' calls for “law and order” would sound to people like Lewis who remember when those tenants were used to deprive black people of their rights.
"We all live in the same house, the American house," Lewis said. "We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us and not just for some of us."
Booker, Lewis and Richmond were part of a panel that Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he allowed after Democrats on the committee requested that they be allowed to testify. Republicans balanced out the panel with three black lawyers who worked with Sessions and vigorously supported his nomination.
Willie Huntley, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Sessions, said he has never seen the Alabama Republican show a sign of racial insensitivity.
"One of the things I can say about Jeff is that he has always been the same person that I have known," Huntley said.
But the lawmakers who testified were unhappy with their position in the hearing. Richmond objected to the panel being placed at the end of the two-day marathon, calling it the "equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus."
Richmond then joined Lewis and Booker in soundly rejecting Sessions, saying his record as a lawmaker opposing criminal-justice reform and his calls for law and order should disqualify him from serving as attorney general.
"Each and every senator who casts a vote to confirm Senator Sessions will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator in an effort to more this country backwards towards a darker period in our shared history," Richmond said.
The stirring testimony put an exclamation point on the second day of Sessions' confirmation hearing, which Democrats used to focus their attacks against Sessions on his record on voting rights and his praise of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
During the first panel of Wednesday's hearing, Democrats leaned primarily on Cornell Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, to raise questions about Sessions' voting-rights record. That was only one line of attack Democrats used on Day 1 of the hearing, often tying it to his prosecution of a voter-fraud case in Alabama, which they criticized as overzealous or unfounded.
"I want an attorney general who is going to protect people's right to vote, and I don't think with Senator Sessions we're going to have that," said Sen. Al Franken, who was one of Sessions' most fierce questioners on Tuesday.
Brooks said Sessions' record reveals a "constant disregard of civil rights of vulnerable populations," and raised concerns about Sessions' willingness to commit to protecting the right to vote if confirmed.
"Based on the record, I do not believe that the senator has sufficiently described a Department of Justice fully committed to enforcing the nation's civil rights laws," Brooks said.
"It's amazing to me that, with the senator having cast 6,000 votes in the United States Senate, we're focused on a handful of policy differences that somehow people are saying are dispositive of the qualification of this person who we have served alongside of – for 15 years in my case and 20 years in the case of others," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., needled Brooks over the NAACP's score cards, which Graham said seem to unfairly give high scores to Democrats while routinely failing Republicans.
The second day of hearings concluded shortly before 2 p.m., meaning the committee considered Sessions' nomination for roughly 15 hours across two days. Sessions' nomination is likely to go forward unabated, as Democrats do not have enough votes to block him and no Republicans are expected to oppose him.
A vote on his nomination is expected after the inauguration.
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