In hearing, Sessions says he’ll put law above his own views

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) takes his seat to resume his testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for his nomination to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RTX2YD47

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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s opening day of confirmation season for team Trump.

And Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, was leadoff man. He went before colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, defending his views on race and civil rights and, at times, separating himself from the man who chose him.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions walked into his hearing to some as a longtime, accomplished senator unfairly accused of prejudice, to others, as an extreme conservative who stokes racial divide.

In his opening remarks, the attorney general hopeful laid out his theme to both sides, saying he would put the law above his own views.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, Attorney General-Designate: I have always loved the law. It is the very foundation of our great country. It’s the exceptional foundation of America.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Sessions’ politics and view of the law have sparked furious opposition.

In 1986, accusations of racially insensitive remarks and actions led the Senate to reject him for a federal judgeship.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, Ranking Member, Judiciary Committee: And the committee has received letters of opposition from 400 different civil rights organizations, 1,400 law professors.

LISA DESJARDINS: Today, ranking Democrat California’s Dianne Feinstein opened by pointing to fears that Sessions wouldn’t enforce laws fairly to all. Sessions insisted the accusations were all false.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct. I have become United States attorney. I supported, as the civil rights attorney said, major civil rights cases in my districts.

LISA DESJARDINS: The hearing was interrupted regularly by protesters raising an array of concerns, from civil rights to immigration to marijuana policy. Committee Democrats like largely withheld fire today, instead focusing on questions about major issues like abortion.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: You have referred to Roe vs. Wade as — quote — “one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time” — end quote. Is that still your view?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: It is. It is law of the land. It has been so established and settled for quite a long time. And it deserves respect, and I would respect it and follow it.

LISA DESJARDINS: This was Sessions’ refrain: His view hasn’t changed; his job would. Similarly, on same-sex marriage.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: The five justices on the Supreme Court, a majority of the court, has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America. And I will follow that decision.

LISA DESJARDINS: And on waterboarding.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any form of torture in the United States by our military and by all other departments and agencies.

LISA DESJARDINS: It was on immigration, an issue where Sessions will have tremendous power, that he took a staunch stand.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I do believe that if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty, that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration into America. I believe the American people spoke clearly in this election. I believe they agreed with my basic view.

LISA DESJARDINS: One question was asked by both parties: How would Sessions handle any cases involving President-elect Trump and his family? Sessions insisted he would resign, rather than do something unlawful.

Later, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked about Russia.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-R.I.): Will the Department of Justice and the FBI under your administration be allowed to continue to investigate the Russian connection, even if it leads to the Trump camp and Trump interests and associates?

LISA DESJARDINS: Sessions didn’t answer directly, and brought up another country.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: If there are laws violated and they can be prosecuted, then of course you will have to handle that in an appropriate way. I would say that the problem may turn out to be, as in the Chinese hacking of hundreds of thousands of maybe millions, of records, it has to be handled at a political level.

LISA DESJARDINS: Sessions told the committee he would recuse himself on cases involving Hillary Clinton’s email, but asked if he’d recuse himself from any Trump investigations?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I would review it and try to do the right thing as to whether or not it should stay within the jurisdiction of the attorney general or not.

LISA DESJARDINS: And we may see more drama and strong words tomorrow. That’s when there will be witnesses for and against Mr. Sessions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa, thanks, along with other nominee confirmations.

So, Lisa, separately today, the president-elect told The New York Times in an interview that he wants Republicans in Congress to replace Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, at the same time or very shortly after they repeal it. How does that square with what Republicans are thinking and planning to do?

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s certainly been the other big headline on Capitol Hill today. It is at odds with the direction Republicans had been going in. Right now, the repeal itself seems likely to happen some time perhaps by the end of January, at its fastest, and replacement, Republicans haven’t agreed on a timeline for that, some of them looking at even maybe this summer.

But now we have had word from the House Republican Speaker Paul Ryan today, saying he hopes to add in some concurrent elements of the replace as they repeal. I think, all in all, Judy, this is sort of the longtime Republican leaders in Congress coming, perhaps clashing with to some degree the new Republican president to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, Lisa, this could mean a delay in the repeal vote?

LISA DESJARDINS: No, I don’t think so, but I think what it means, it will be very difficult to meet Donald Trump’s timeline of an immediate repeal. The repeal itself is probably still weeks away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you.

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