WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., should have been a tough sell in the U.S. Senate.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general voted to impeach then-President Clinton, opposed President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and led the opposition to a 2013 bipartisan immigration bill. He was also denied a federal judgeship 30 years ago – by the U.S. Senate – amid allegations that as U.S. attorney he had improperly prosecuted black voting-rights activists and used racially intemperate language.

But here’s something else to know about Sessions: He is one of the more well-liked members of the Senate, a place that still retains elements of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. He is genial, respectful and patient – to both colleagues and staff. And that has given fellow Republicans and even some Democrats reason not to scrutinize the more unsavory allegations of his political history.

Take Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who, under other circumstances, might be a target for Democrats to peel off in hopes of defeating Sessions’ nomination.

Instead, she’s his lead spokeswoman.

Sessions and Collins may both be Republicans, but otherwise they could not be more different. He is a Methodist who grew up in a small town 100 miles from Alabama’s Gulf Coast. She was raised Catholic in tiny Caribou, Maine, less than 20 miles from the Canadian border. He speaks in a lilting twang; she with New England deliberativeness.

While Sessions was building a voting record in the Senate as a rock-ribbed conservative, Collins has most often been on the opposite side – the leading moderate of her generation who refused to vote for Trump and patterned her career after fellow Mainer Margaret Chase Smith, who made national headlines in the early 1950s by standing up to Joe McCarthy (and was the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate).

On Tuesday, Collins will introduce Sessions to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a full-throated endorsement.

“He’s a decent individual with a strong commitment to the rule of law. He’s a leader of integrity,” Collins said in an interview, dismissing attacks from liberal activists about his conservative views and his actions as a young, southern prosecutor. “I think the attacks against him are not well-founded and are unfair.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks to reporters at Trump Tower in New York this fall.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks to reporters at Trump Tower in New York this fall. Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster


Collins’ high-profile endorsement signals the uphill fight Sessions’s opponents face in trying to deny his bid to become the nation’s chief law enforcement officer with the sort of broadside attacks that have become common in confirmation hearings. Despite holding some of the most conservative positions in the Senate, Sessions is a heavy favorite to win confirmation.

“I genuinely like him,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Judiciary Committee who still might vote against Session because of the “stark differences” between the two on policy. But they are friends.

This has frustrated the liberal coalition of civil rights groups leading the opposition. In 1986 this same coalition successfully swayed the committee to reject Sessions for a federal judgeship. Rather than slink into retirement, Sessions won a Senate seat in 1996 and has served ever since on the Judiciary Committee, whose members are now tasked with voting on him.

“You should be sitting in that room prepared to learn about this person, who you may have seen running next to you on the treadmill in the Senate gym, who you have may have had lunch with … but whose record as it relates to the critical issue of civil rights you might not know,” Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said Friday during a call with coalition members.


Democrats aren’t about to give Sessions a free pass.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the former committee chairman, wants to question him on his religious freedom views. Coons went home for the weekend with a 300-page briefing book on Sessions’ record, ranging from civil liberties to his personal financial investments. Sen. Jack Reed, R.I., the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, will be watching questions about the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques of terrorists.

But most senators tend to view Sessions in the same way Collins does – as a friendly man who never broke his word to them. Many have prayed with him and traveled with him on official trips. Almost no one wants to review the original allegations against him during his 1986 nomination; for the most part, they don’t believe that he is the racist some have painted.

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