Senate panel votes on Jeff Sessions AG nomination

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Sen. Jeff Sessions began the defense of his nomination for Donald Trump's attorney general on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 by emphasizing a theme of enforcing law and order and strongly pushed back against allegations of racism in his long career.

WASHINGTON– The Senate Judiciary Committee is voting Tuesday morning on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, a politically charged pick that’s receiving even more scrutiny in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

The panel is expected to approve and advance Sessions for a vote in the full Senate.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley opened the session with a pre-emptive defense of Sessions.

“He knows the department better than any nominee for attorney general, he’s a man of his word, and most importantly he will enforce the law no matter whether he would have supported that law as a member of the Senate,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, lit into Sessions, tying him to the travel ban and other actions from the new Trump administration.

“Not one order idea or pronouncement is meant to bring this country together; they only serve to drive us further apart,” Feinstein said. “It is in this context we are being asked to consider this nomination.”

Feinstein read from a Washington Post article that touted Sessions’ deep influence in Trump’s new administration — including highlights of the Alabama senator’s loyalists working on policy.

“How could we possibly conclude that this nominee is going to be independent?” Feinstein said.

Sessions has denied he was involved in drafting Trump’s travel ban. In written responses to the Judiciary Committee, he wrote: “Neither I, nor any of my current staff, had such a role.”

Feinstein also ticked through a list of attacks, saying Sessions may support overturning Roe v. Wade and had previously voiced support for enhanced interrogation — a heated item following Trump’s musings about trying to bring back waterboarding.

“These positions give me no confidence the nominee will uphold our laws and civil liberties as attorney general,” Feinstein said.

Committee Democrats held up former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump Monday night after directing Justice Department lawyers to not defend his travel ban, as a contrast against Sessions and Trump.

“During the campaign, President Trump sought my and my staff’s input on a number of matters on which I have taken very public positions as a senator; however, it would be impossible for me to know the degree to which that input was relied upon in formulating or drafting the Executive Orders in question,” Sessions wrote.

Grassley echoed that Tuesday morning.

“Some on the order side have raised concerns about Sen. Sessions, whether he’s involved, if he was involved in drafting the executive order. It’s not clear to me why it would be a problem if he was involved. But the fact of the matter is he was not involved,” Grassley said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a veteran Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, focused more of his attacks on Trump than Sessions.

The Vermont Democrat picked through Trump’s widely debunked claims of voter fraud, ending by saying: “The next thing we’re going to hear is that unicorns voted.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, dismissed the Democratic outcry as sour grapes over the election results.

“Our friends on the other side seem to be upset about the outcome of the election on November 8. I guess you could say they’re going through the stages of grief,” he said.

He added that Yates, the acting AG, should have resigned if she felt she couldn’t execute her job.

“What she should have done if she couldn’t do her job was to quit … I believe President Trump was entirely within his rights to fire her,” he said.

By Tom LoBianco

CNN’s Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.