A closely divided Senate confirmed the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general on Wednesday after a historically tumultuous confirmation process that saw the senator from Alabama come under fire for his views on race and civil rights.
All but one Democrat voted against confirming Sessions, while his Republican colleagues unanimously backed him. The final tally of senators was 52 to 47.
Many senators broke into applause after the vote over one of its own members being elevated to the cabinet. But they were almost all Republicans. A handful of Democrats, including Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bill Nelson of Florida, gave a few polite claps.
The confirmation process for Sessions, a four-term senator, tested the Senate’s norms of treating colleagues with deference.
Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey became the first sitting senator ever to testify against the nomination of a colleague, and growing tensions on the floor led to the rare use of Senate procedure on Tuesday to silence Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for quoting a 30-year-old letter attacking Sessions written by Coretta Scott King, the late widow of Martin Luther King Jr.
Sessions came under scrutiny for his past record on civil rights. He had previously been nominated to be a federal district judge in 1986 by the then president Ronald Reagan but allegations of racism torpedoed his nomination, which was voted down in committee.
Sessions rebounded politically to become Alabama attorney general and then win election in 1996 to the Senate, where he became one of the leading immigration hawks in the Republican caucus. Sessions helped lead the effort to derail comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and formed a close alliance with the far-right website Breitbart in the process. Breitbart’s editor at the time, Steve Bannon, is now a top White House aide.
The Alabama senator became the first federal elected official to endorse Donald Trump’s campaign in February 2016 not long after his longtime aide, Stephen Miller, joined Trump’s campaign as a speechwriter and warm-up speaker at rallies. His close ties to Trump raised concern from Democrats, who worried that he would be insufficiently independent of the White House as attorney general.
With his confirmation, Sessions takes over a justice department that has already seen significant drama since Trump took the oath of office. The new president fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, last week after the Obama holdover announced that she would not defend his executive order banning entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The outgoing Republican senator also leaves a Senate ferociously divided as it continues through a series of bruising, partisan confirmation fights over Trump’s nominees. Democrats are planning on keeping the chamber in session through Saturday and dragging out the debate on the nominations of Tom Price to be health and human services secretary and Steven Mnuchin to be secretary of the treasury. Both are expected to be confirmed on party lines.
Sessions gave a conciliatory speech from the floor after his vote where he expressed his hope for reduced tensions and more civil debate after the hard-fought fight over his nomination. He amplified this on his way out, expressing his appreciation for “the friendship of my colleagues, even those who many of them didn’t feel able to vote for me. They were cordial so we’ve continued to have good relations.”
The one Democrat to vote for Sessions, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, explained his decision to reporters after the vote. “You know in West Virginia, we basically build on a relationship if we have a relationship, and Jeff Sessions and I have had a relationship for over six years. And everything he was accused of, I’ve never seen, so I am basing on what my knowledge of Jeff Sessions is and I think he’ll be fair and very deliberate in what he does [as attorney general.]”
Manchin, who threw Sessions a thumbs-up on Wednesday night as he headed to place his vote, added that he was confident that when he addresses his constituents, “I can explain my relationship with Jeff Sessions and I’m proud to vote for him.”
Sessions’ confirmation leaves his Senate seat vacant. Once Sessions formally resigns later Wednesday night, Alabama governor Robert Bentley will appoint his successor, who will run in a special election in 2018 for the remainder of Sessions’ term.
The favorite is state attorney general Luther Strange, who is currently investigating Bentley’s relationship with a former aide, with whom he allegedly had an extramarital affair. By appointing Strange to the Senate seat, Bentley would delay the investigation into his conduct and be responsible for appointing Strange’s replacement.
Once Sessions leaves the Senate and until his replacement is appointed, the GOP will be left with a 51-seat majority as they vote on Trump’s remaining nominees, many of whom are controversial in their own right.