WASHINGTON (CN) – Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee employed a little-used delay tactic Tuesday to push back a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general.
The committee was expected to send the Alabama Republican to the full Senate for confirmation by a narrow, party-line vote this afternoon. But Democrats successfully delayed the meeting, using lengthy speeches to push it past 2 p.m. so they could invoke the so-called “two-hour rule,” an obscure Senate rule that prevents committees from holding meetings two hours after the Senate convenes.
With the Senate coming into order at noon on Tuesday, the committee had to stop its meeting at 2 p.m. without unanimous consent from senators to waive the rule. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer prevented this from happening, invoking the two-hour rule to stop the meeting without a vote.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the committee, rescheduled the vote for Wednesday morning.
Republicans used the same tactic to delay a nomination hearing on IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in December 2013. Koskinen eventually took the job and faced an unsuccessful impeachment attempt by Republicans.
Tuesday’s stall required Democrats to speak much longer than their Republican colleagues and to blow by a time limit Grassley mentioned at the beginning of the hearing but quickly abandoned, saying he hoped it would breed good will to let Democrats exceed the time limit.
Some senators found themselves in unique positions. At one point Grassley stopped Sen. Chris Coons in the middle of a speech, informing the Delaware Democrat that not enough senators were at the meeting for deliberations to continue.
Grassley offered Coons the ability to ask special permission to continue speaking despite the lack of a quorum, but Coons looked at the clock and instead asked whether any senators were nearby who could join the meeting.
Aware of what the Democrats were trying to do, Grassley said he assumed Coons would want to wait and Coons was silent until a Republican arrived so he could continue his speech.
Grassley later asked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to gather Republicans for the committee meeting, apparently to prevent Democrats from using the quorum requirement to stall any longer.
“We need to be here as Republicans and get the job done,” Grassley told Cornyn as the committee broke to allow members to go to a separate vote.
Democrats on Tuesday also boycotted committee votes on Tom Price and Steven Mnuchin, President Donald Trump’s picks to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and the Treasury Department, preventing those votes from going forward.
The vote now scheduled for Wednesday is the second step Sessions must take before assuming office, having already gone through a lengthy confirmation hearing earlier this month. With no Republicans coming out against the nomination, he is all but assured to clear the Senate when he goes before the full body for a confirmation vote.
Because of changes Democrats made to Senate rules during the Obama administration that prevent most executive nominees from being filibustered, at least four GOP senators would need to vote against Sessions for him to fail.
Sessions has been one of the Trump nominees to face strong opposition by Senate Democrats. They have railed against Sessions’ praise of a Supreme Court decision that cut down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, as well as his close ties to Trump, to back up their claims that Sessions is unwilling to enforce basic rights or to stand up to unconstitutional actions by the president.
Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump on the campaign trail and appeared with the then-candidate at multiple campaign events, often sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Many portions of the lengthy speeches Democrats gave on the committee Tuesday focused not on Sessions’ qualifications but on Trump’s executive orders in the first days of his presidency, especially the one banning visa holders and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Republicans distanced Sessions from charges that he or his staff helped craft the order, but Democrats still said Sessions’ relationship with Trump should raise questions about whether he would defend even unconstitutional White House orders.
“The question is, if confirmed, what will this nominee do?” asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the hearing. “Will he support and defend these broad and destructive executive orders? Will he carry out and enforce the president’s actions that may very well violate the constitution. If past is prologue to the future, it is not difficult to assess that he will.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who noted he has disagreed with Trump more than he thought he would during the president’s first week in office, defended Sessions, saying presidents always choose people close to them for key administration posts.
He added that he voted for former Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the last administration, even though he disagreed with her politics because he believed her to be qualified for the job.
“The question is, is he qualified,” Graham asked. “Is he a decent, honorable man? And he’s every bit as qualified and every bit as decent and honorable as Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.”
The debate over Sessions came less than a day after Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates because she had told Justice Department employees not to prepare legal defenses of Trump’s executive order.
Yates’ firing came up often at the meeting, with Grassley reminding Democrats that Sessions told the committee during his marathon confirmation hearing that he would not be a “rubber stamp” on Trump’s policies.
Feinstein countered, however, by praising Yates’ letter to Justice Department employees as taking “guts.” The California Democrat said she has “no confidence” that Sessions would take similarly strong action against a Trump action he thought violated the Constitution.
Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., echoed Feinstein’s comments, saying it seemed like Republicans and Democrats on the committee were talking about different people when debating Sessions’ nomination.
“The attorney general is the people’s attorney, not the president’s attorney,” Leahy said.
On Twitter Tuesday morning, Trump criticized Democrats for holding up Sessions and other cabinet employees. This is the second time Democrats have delayed the committee vote on Sessions, having pushed it back by request last week.