WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions was confirmed Wednesday as President Donald Trump's attorney general, capping a bitter and racially charged nomination battle that crested with the procedural silencing of a leading Democrat, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who had criticized the Alabama senator from the Senate floor.
Sessions survived a near-party-line vote, 52-47, the latest sign of the extreme partisanship at play as Trump strains to install his Cabinet. No Republicans broke ranks in their support of a colleague who will become the nation's top law enforcement official after two decades in the Senate.
But the confirmation process — ferocious even by the moldering standards of decorum that have defined the body's recent years — laid bare the Senate's deep divisions at the outset of the Trump presidency. At the same time, the latest star turn for Warren rekindled the gender-infused politics that animated the presidential election and the women's march protesting Trump the day after his inauguration last month.
Democrats spent the hours before the vote Wednesday seething over the treatment of Warren, who had been barred from speaking on the floor the previous night. Late Tuesday, Republicans voted to formally silence Warren after the senator read from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King that criticized Sessions for using "the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens" while serving as a federal prosecutor in Alabama.
Since Trump announced his choice for attorney general, Sessions' history with issues of race had assumed center stage. A committee hearing on his nomination included searing indictments from black Democratic lawmakers like Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who broke with Senate tradition to testify against a peer.
For weeks, Republicans have rejected any suggestion that Sessions cannot be trusted on civil rights, arguing that he had been tarnished unfairly over accusations of racial insensitivity that have dogged him since the 1980s.
"Everybody in this body knows Sen. Sessions well, knows that he is a man of integrity, a man of principle," Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said during the debate on Wednesday afternoon. The "twisting" of Sessions' record offended him, he said, even as Democrats continued their attacks on the nominee.
As the 84th attorney general, Sessions brings a sharply conservative bent to the Justice Department and its 113,000 employees. A former prosecutor, he promises a focus aligned with Trump in pushing a "law and order" agenda that includes tougher enforcement of laws on immigration, drugs and gun trafficking.
Civil rights advocates worry, however, that he will reverse steps taken by the Obama administration in the last eight years to bring more accountability to police departments, state and local governments and employers. Advocates point to his history of votes against various civil rights measures, as well as the accusations of racial insensitivity.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Wednesday that on civil rights, immigration, abortion, criminal sentencing guidelines and a range of other issues, Sessions had been far outside the mainstream and had pushed "extreme policies" often targeting minorities.
That criticism peaked with Tuesday night's rebuke of Warren, based on an arcane Senate rule that prevents members from impugning the character of a fellow senator, as she read the letter from King. The widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she wrote the letter in response to Sessions' 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately rejected in part because of accusations that he had been insensitive to minorities as a prosecutor.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, asserted on the Senate floor Wednesday that the move was "totally, totally uncalled-for," and he said it reflected an "antifree speech attitude" emanating from the White House. He and other Democrats said the censure served to mute legitimate criticism of Sessions' record on civil rights and racial issues — one of their main avenues of attack at his contentious nomination hearing last month.
The vote on Sessions came a day after Senate Republicans broke through a bottleneck in Trump's nominees by approving Betsy DeVos, the embattled Republican donor, as education secretary with the help of a tiebreaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. With Sessions' confirmation, votes are expected in coming days on the nominations of Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as secretary of health and human services, and Steven T. Mnuchin as Treasury secretary.