Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions took his seat as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee for the first time Wednesday.
The committee's top GOP post had been held by Sen. Arlen Specter, but Specter lost it last week when he abandoned the Republican Party to become a Democrat.
Now Sessions is in charge of how the GOP will deal with President Obama's judicial nominees. The new role is also a personal vindication: The Senate Judiciary Committee once rejected Sessions' nomination to be a federal judge.
As the committee's chairman, Patrick Leahy, opened Wednesday's oversight hearing on homeland security, he turned his attention to Sessions.
"I will turn to my friend from Alabama, who's the new ranking member on this committee, and I appreciate him being there," Leahy said. "He and I have worked together on many, many things over the years. And I now turn it over, over to him."
Sessions acknowledged that a remarkable turn of events had put him in the new position.
A Failed Nomination
It was 23 years ago that a Judiciary Committee controlled by Republicans rejected then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions' nomination by Ronald Reagan for an appointment as a federal judge. During confirmation hearings, Sessions sought to rebut accusations from former colleagues that as a federal prosecutor, he was racially insensitive.
At the time, Sessions said he was not a racist and was a civil rights supporter.
But in the end, even Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin, who originally sponsored Sessions' nomination, voted against him. The committee vote was 10-8 against Sessions. Two Republicans and every Democrat opposed his nomination, including ranking Democrat Joe Biden.
Now, Sessions is serving his third term in the Senate — holding the seat the late Heflin once held. Sessions said he and his colleagues joke about his failed nomination.
"Vice President Biden said, 'Sessions, if I [had] let you be a judge, I wouldn't have to put up with you now,' " Sessions joked.
One of the Republicans who voted against Sessions was Specter — a decision the newly minted Democrat said he now regrets.
"My vote against candidate Sessions for the federal court was a mistake because I have since found that Sen. Sessions is egalitarian," Specter said.
A Big Change For The Panel
Still, questions are once again being raised about the new ranking member's record on racial matters, and it seems to bother some of Sessions' GOP colleagues on the committee.
But other Republicans acknowledge that in succeeding the politically moderate Specter, Sessions represents a big change as the panel's top Republican.
It's unclear how the Alabama senator will handle confirmation hearings for whomever Obama names to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter. But Sessions said he has learned something from his own experience.
"I think we have a high responsibility to base any criticisms that we have on a fair and honest statement of the facts, and that nominees should not be subjected to distortions of their record, taking things they've done out of context," Sessions said.
In any case, with 12 Democrats and only seven Republicans on the panel, Obama's judicial nominees enjoy favorable odds.