With Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party, the new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee is Jeff Sessions of Alabama. In a deal worked out yesterday by Senate Republicans, Sessions will be the ranking GOPer through 2010, when Charles Grassley of Iowa will assume the post.
Sessions will play a key role in formulating the GOP strategy on whomever President Obama names to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. A strong conservative, Sessions' ideology is nothing like the man he replaces, Pennsylvania's Specter.
Sessions, of course, has a long history with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In 1986, as a U.S. attorney from Alabama, he was nominated by President Reagan to be a federal district judge. But the nomination was in trouble from the outset, mostly over Sessions' history of racially provocative remarks. One famous quote was that he thought that members of the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot." Sessions said the comment was not said in seriousness, but he apologized.
Republicans held a 10-8 advantage on the committee in June of 1986. But two Republicans, Charles Mathias of Maryland and Specter, crossed over to vote with the rest of the Democrats to defeat Sessions by a 10-8 margin.
In a very Specter-like move, the Pennsylvanian then voted with eight other Republicans to send Sessions' nomination to the full Senate floor with no recommendation. But that failed on a 9-9 vote.
Leading the charge against Sessions were Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the committee. However, the key vote against Sessions was cast by Sen. Howell Heflin, the Democrat who initially backed his fellow Alabaman for the judgeship. Heflin's opposition, based on what he said were "reasonable doubts" over Sessions' ability to be "fair and impartial," made it easier for other Democrats to vote no.
Sessions went on to become the attorney general of Alabama, and in 1996, when Heflin retired, he won his Senate seat. He was easily re-elected in 2002 and 2008. At a time when Republicans are trying to sort out how to respond to the new president, Sessions' role as ranking member on the committee that will decide Obama's judicial nominees will be closely scrutinized.