MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today, Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III jumped seats. He's now the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter previously held the GOP post, but he lost it last week when he became a Democrat. For Senator Sessions, the move puts him in charge of how the GOP deals with President Obama's judicial nominations. As NPR's David Welna reports, it's also a personal vindication.
DAVID WELNA: As Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy gaveled in this morning's meeting, an oversight hearing on homeland security, he glanced over at the diminutive white-haired senator seated to his right.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): I will turn to my friend from Alabama, who's the new ranking member on this committee, and I appreciate him being here. He and I have worked together on many, many things over the years. And I now turn it over, over to him. And I, Jeff, I'm glad to have you here.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is a remarkable series of events that I find myself in this position.
WELNA: Remarkable, indeed, when you consider that 23 years ago, a judiciary committee controlled by Republicans rejected then U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions' nomination by Ronald Reagan for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge. During 23 hours of confirmation hearings, Sessions sought to rebut accusations from former colleagues that as a federal prosecutor, he'd been racially insensitive.
Sen. SESSIONS: I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist, I am not insensitive to blacks. I supported civil rights activity in my state.
WELNA: In the end, though, even Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin, who'd originally sponsored the nomination, reached a conclusion about Sessions he said many in his state would disagree with.
Senator HOWELL HEFLIN (Democrat, Alabama): But as long as I have reasonable doubts, my conscience is not clear, and I must vote no.
WELNA: The committee vote was 10 to eight against Sessions. Two Republicans and every Democrat opposed his nomination, including ranking Democrat Joe Biden.
Vice President JOE BIDEN: It demonstrates that the Senate Judiciary Committee still thinks that the race issue and civil rights are paramount issues, and when in doubt, we are not going to go with anyone we have any doubt about on the issue of race.
WELNA: Sessions is now serving his third term in the Senate, holding the seat the late Howell Heflin once held. Sessions says he and his colleagues joke about his failed nomination.
Sen. SESSIONS: Vice President Biden said, Sessions, if I let you be a judge, I wouldn't have to put up with you now.
WELNA: One of the Republicans who voted against Sessions was Arlen Specter. It's a vote this newly minted Democrat now says he regrets.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): My vote against candidate Sessions for the federal court was a mistake, because I have since found that Senator Sessions is egalitarian.
WELNA: Still, questions are once again being raised about the new ranking member's record on racial matters, and it clearly seems to bother some of Sessions' GOP colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. Here's Arizona's Jon Kyl.
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Come on. I'm not even going to respond to idiotic questions like that. That's an affront. Now that is an affront to civility. Jeff Sessions has been a very valued member of that committee, ask any Democrat on the committee.
WELNA: But other GOP colleagues acknowledge that in succeeding the politically moderate Specter, Sessions represents quite a change as the panel's top Republican. Here's Utah's Orrin Hatch.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): No, he's a rock-ribbed conservative, no question about that. So we'll see how well he gets along with Senator Leahy. And others.
WELNA: It's not clear how the Alabama Republican will handle confirmation hearings for whomever President Obama names to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Sessions says he has learned something from his experience.
Sen. SESSIONS: I think we have a high responsibility to base any criticisms 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.
WELNA: In any case, with 12 Democrats now on the Judiciary panel and only seven Republicans, President Obama's judicial nominees enjoy favorable odds, even with a rock-ribbed conservative as the ranking member. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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