A Senate committee voted to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general on Wednesday, two days after the growing controversy surrounding President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim nations led to the firing of an acting attorney general for insubordination.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sessions 11-9 along party lines. His nomination now goes to the floor, where he is widely expected to be confirmed given the GOP’s 52-seat majority.
The committee vote comes as Senate Democrats have sought to slow progress on other Trump nominees, including Steve Mnuchin, the pick at the Treasury Department, and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s pick to lead the Health and Human Services Department.
The Alabama senator’s already difficult path to confirmation was made more contentious by Trump’s firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who deemed the president’s order illegal and said she would not have Justice attorneys defend it.
Committee Democrats on Tuesday praised Yates for her actions and accused Sessions of helping Trump draft the order, a claim Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) denied.
“I’m not sure if it would be a problem even if he was involved,” he said during his opening marks. “The fact of the matter is he was not involved.”
Democrats have fiercely criticized by Trump’s order and Yates’s firing, and said that any vote for Sessions is a vote to let Trump stifle dissent in his Justice Department. They used a procedural move to stall a planned vote on Sessions on Tuesday.
Trump quickly replaced Yates with Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He rescinded the Yates order and said Justice will defend the executive order.
Reports have linked Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller — a former Sessions staffer — to the order, and Democrats pointed to a Washington Post report detailing Sessions’s influence in the Trump administration.
“To suggest he didn’t have an impact on these executive orders is misleading,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “He had indirect influence at the highest level.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued that being a close adviser to Trump doesn’t disqualify him from being attorney general.
“Who do you expect him to pick?” he asked, adding that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was okay with President John Kennedy choosing his brother Robert Kennedy to be attorney general.
“Who do you really expect the president to pick?”
A protester stood and answered Graham’s rhetorical question.
“Certainly not a puppet,” she said before Capitol Police hauled out of the meeting room.
But Democrats questioned whether Sessions would stand up to Trump the way Yates did Monday when faced with seemingly unconstitutional orders.
“What is so tragically apparent here is Trump is unwilling to consider the legal reasons Sally Yates stood her ground and why that position now more than ever deserves someone who will stand for the rule of law and constitutional principle,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
The committee vote, which Democrats delayed last week, follows two days of confirmation hearings in which Sessions defended his record on civil rights addressed head-on charges that he’s made racially insensitive remarks about African Americans.
Civil rights groups have been pushing Democrats to reject the Alabamian who lost a confirmation fight in 1986 for a federal judgeship over those claims, and lawmakers seized the opportunity over two days of hearings to question him about his remarks as well as his record on voting rights.
“I do not harbor those kinds of animosities and race-based ideas I was accused of,” Sessions said when questioned by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) even broke Senate tradition and became the first sitting senator to testify against another sitting senator chosen for a Cabinet post.
Booker argued that Sessions has not proven he can uphold the responsibilities of an attorney general, namely ensuring equal rights for all Americans.
But Sessions’ confirmation, which is now headed to the floor for a full Senate vote, is almost assured. Sessions, who is well liked by his GOP colleagues, appears to have the 50 votes he needs to get confirmed with Republicans holding a 52-seat majority.
GOP members have not voiced any opposition to Sessions and he has the vote of at least one Democrat — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).