Sessions Vote Lays Bare Deep Divides in Senate

28_Sessions Confirmation
Jeff Sessions testifies at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 10. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Senator Jeff Sessions is a “friend,” Democrat after Democrat reiterated on the Senate floor Wednesday. Yet all but one of those co-called friends voted against Sessions, their Republican colleague from Alabama, to be President Donald Trump’s attorney general.

The near unified Democratic opposition to a fellow senator’s cabinet nomination, coming less than 24 hours after a remarkable spat between liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren and Republican leaders on the chamber’s floor, set a new high (or, perhaps, low) for partisan rancor in a body that prides itself on its comity. And it’s further hardened the battle lines that have formed over Trump’s Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees. While Sessions didn’t need Democratic votes to win confirmation (thanks to a rule change Democrats pushed through in 2013), Trump will need at least eight Democrats on board to advance major parts of his agenda, not to mention avoid a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Close observers of the Senate, however, say the acrimony that’s characterized the first six weeks of the 2017 session suggest those votes are going to be difficult to come by.

 Related: Elizabeth Warren’s Senate silencing prompts #ShePersisted on Twitter

“Any sort of legislative victories are going to be few and far between,” predicted Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, before that, Ted Kennedy. “I think the majority of the [Democratic] caucus is united in standing up to this administration and its policies.”

“The signs are not promising,” agrees Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and former Hill aide, particularly on Trump signature issues like tax reform and an Obamacare replacement.

Manley says he doesn’t expect much to come of the president’s confab with moderate Democrats at the White House on Thursday, either. In his first personal outreach with some of the Democratic senators viewed as most likely to cross the aisle, Trump is hosting a lunch with Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. All four hail from Republican-leaning “red” states that Trump won handily in November, and all face tough re-election battles in 2018. Yet thus far, they’ve mostly lined up with fellow Democrats in attempting to obstruct Trump nominees and policies. Manchin was the lone Democrat to vote for Sessions Wednesday night. He also voted for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as did Heitkamp. None of the four voted for another controversial nominee, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

While the Senate came closer to blocking DeVos, with two Republicans joining the unanimous Democratic opposition, the Sessions vote is in some ways more telling. As a 20-year-veteran of the Senate, he had existing relationships with nearly all of those who would decide his confirmation. Sitting senators nominated to past Cabinets—including two Obama secretaries of state, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—have enjoyed overwhelming support from their colleagues. Yet one by one on Wednesday, Democrats came to the floor and explained that while they liked the senator personally, their concerns about Trump, and Sessions’s views on civil rights, voting access and the legality of torture, gave them no choice but to vote “no.”

“I know Senator Sessions well, we served together on the Armed Services Committee, we attend a weekly Senate prayer breakfast together,” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine observed. However, he continued, “We’re not ultimately here about friendship, we’re here to do the people’s business.”

The tone on Wednesday was much calmer than the one Tuesday night, after Republicans rebuked Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, for her critique of Sessions on the Senate floor. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked an obscure rule that prohibits senators from, in essence, insulting one another. Republicans ruled Warren had violated the rule by reading from past statements from Coretta Scott King and the late Senator Ted Kennedy condemning Sessions’s record on civil rights, and she was thus barred from speaking for the rest of the late-night debate. Of course, Democrats quickly pointed out, Republicans have failed to apply that rule to their own in the past. Plenty of senators have gotten away with denigrating their colleagues, particularly in recent years. Perhaps most infamously, Texas Republican Ted Cruz called McConnell a liar in a 2015 rant.  

Not one to be silenced, Warren quickly turned up on YouTube, where she read the King letter in its entirety. Fellow Democratic senators also read sections of it from the Senate floor, while issuing a flurry of outraged press releases condemning the GOP move. Social media and cable news quickly glommed on to the dustup, spawning the #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted hashtags on Twitter. On Wednesday, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org reported its members had raised $250,000 for Warren’s re-election campaign.

The Republicans’ move to rebuke Warren is only the latest escalation in the partisan squabbling over Trump that has seen Democrats stage late-night talk-a-thons and boycott committee hearings to delay his nominees’ confirmations. In response, Republicans have suspended committee rules and used other maneuvers to jam through the cabinet members. In every instance, each side has pointed the finger at the other for betraying Senate standards.

Manley says the Republicans’ broadside against Warren Tuesday night was a new low, however: “In my 21 years in the Senate, I’ve really never seen anything like that.” It’s yet another indication, he said, “that the comity of the Senate is breaking apart at the seams.” The consensus that had formed in Washington by Wednesday morning was that Republicans had miscalculated, putting the Massachusetts senator in the spotlight and firing up her supporters. But Walsh says there may be some political gain for Republicans, as well. “If she’s the voice of the Democratic Party heading into 2018, I think that’s bad news for folks like Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin,” who will need to win over Trump voters to keep their seats. They and eight other Democrats are up for re-election in states Trump won in 2016.

Walsh says that while those Democrats may be responding to the anger still simmering within their party base over the election results, they are eventually going to need to pivot to the center and prove they can help forge bipartisan solutions. Their first big test will be on the upcoming Supreme Court vote, which is the subject of Trump's lunch with Democrats on Thursday. While Gorsuch is opposed by liberal activists and some Democrats have promised to filibuster, even critics say the conservative federal judge is clearly qualified for the post.

Manley predicts vulnerable Senate Democrats may look to broker small compromises with Republicans on issues that resonate in their largely rural states, like energy and the environment. But he says Republicans have proven there’s no need to be moderate to win elections. The big takeaway from the last six years: “Straight-out obstructionism…didn’t really have an impact on their election. Senate Republicans didn’t pay a price for it.”