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Jeff Sessions, John Kelly kick off Senate confirmation hearings for Trump nominees

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is aiming to confirm “six or seven” of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks on Jan. 20, just after the next president is sworn in, hoping to meet the same target that Congress delivered for President Obama in 2009.

The Kentucky Republican said he hopes to make a particular push to get the national security team in place amid pressing problems in the Middle East, with North Korea and here at home, where illegal immigration is increasing and the threat from lone-wolf terrorist attacks remains.

The first two hearings begin Tuesday as Sen. Jeff Sessions, the pick to be attorney general, and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, nominated to take over at the Homeland Security Department, go before Senate committees.

But Democrats have stepped up their complaints that Republicans are trying to jam through the nominees without thorough investigations of their backgrounds, signaling they will use whatever tactics they can to try to stall or delay the picks.

Mr. McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, are sparring over what sorts of checks to put the nominees through.

“Everybody will be properly vetted as they have been in the past, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get up to six or seven — particularly the national security team in place — on Day One,” Mr. McConnell told reporters after a confab with Mr. Trump at Trump Tower in New York.

Mr. Trump said he is pleased with the pace on Capitol Hill and expects all of his picks to be approved.

“They are the absolute highest level. I think we’re going to do very well,” he said in a brief appearance at Trump Tower just after noon Monday.

Mr. Schumer countered that questions must be answered and said Democrats are asking for the nominees to meet the same standards — having a completed ethics report, an FBI background check and all documents submitted to the committees — that Republicans requested in 2009 of Mr. Obama’s nominees.

“We’re not doing this for sport. Democrats feel very strongly that pushing for a thorough and thoughtful vetting process is the right thing to do,” he said on the Senate floor.

Mr. Sessions is the chief target for liberal groups hoping to derail Mr. Trump’s agenda, and those activists are demanding that Senate Democrats attack a man they have served alongside for the past two decades.

The hearing room Tuesday will be packed with his opponents, including activists for civil rights, gay rights, illegal immigrants and marijuana legalization.

But the chief accusation will be over race, stemming from accusations that Mr. Sessions, as U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, improperly prosecuted black voting rights activists and made racially insensitive comments. He is accused of joking one time that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he learned its members smoked marijuana.

In 1986, the same accusations derailed his nomination for the federal bench when he also was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Sessions has vehemently denied making racially insensitive statements or holding racist views. He has pledged to uphold the law fairly and equitably. But his critics are far from satisfied.

The Rev. Al Sharpton announced that he would join other civil rights leaders in the audience as a gesture of opposition.

“A Sessions-led Justice Department will be a nightmare that the United States can’t wake up from and lead to an era of civil disobedience,” he said in a statement. “This rushed hearing is an insult to the American people and an affront to democracy.”

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, will also be in the audience. “We need an attorney general who understands the experiences of all Americans, who sees our community as part of this country. He demonstrates again and again that he is not that person,” she said.

Other groups, such as Democracy for America, have gone so far as to describe Mr. Sessions as a “white supremacist.”

The liberal watchdog group Common Cause, which rarely takes positions on presidential nominees, said it made an exception for Mr. Sessions because “his extensive and troubling record, particularly on civil rights and voting rights, renders him unfit to serve as our nation’s highest ranking law enforcement officer.”

“The nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. attorney general is a threat to many of our nation’s most cherished ideals of democracy. His actions and publicly stated views are out of touch with our nation’s citizens, its laws and with the Constitution,” the group said in a memo to news organizations.

Mr. Trump on Monday also tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to be a senior adviser at the White House, testing the boundaries of the government’s laws against nepotism.

Mr. Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, played a major role in the presidential campaign and has become an integral part of the Trump political operation.

Republicans on Capitol Hill said the arrangement may need to be probed, while Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee went further and have demanded an investigation. They said the appointment could run afoul of nepotism laws, which don’t explicitly apply to the White House but could be read that broadly.

Beyond that, Mr. Kushner would be in a position to make decisions on matters that affect the Trump Organization, which his wife is still involved with, the Democrats said. They said that even if Mr. Kushner declines a salary in an attempt to get around the laws, that could put him afoul of another statute that generally prevents federal employees from accepting voluntary services.

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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