(Fox News) Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions vowed Tuesday to toughen prosecutions for gun crimes and “confront” threats ranging from drug cartels to the rising violence plaguing major cities, at a heated Senate confirmation hearing repeatedly interrupted by protesters.
The Alabama Republican is facing pushback not only from protesters but Democratic colleagues who take issue with his hardline immigration stances and question his civil-rights commitment.
Sessions addressed the latter issue head-on toward the end of his opening statement, decrying the “false charges” against him including suggestions he once sympathized with the KKK. He and his allies cited his past prosecution of Klansmen in countering the narrative, while Sessions denied another charge that he once called the NAACP “un-American.”
“I deeply understand the history of civil rights … and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters,” Sessions said.
Sessions delivered an opening statement otherwise heavy on law-and-order themes.
Citing spikes in crime in major cities like Chicago as well as the growing heroin epidemic, he said: “These trends cannot continue. It is a fundamental civil right to be safe in your home and your community.”
He vowed if confirmed to “systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes” and go after cartels.
“It will be my priority to confront these crises vigorously, effectively, and immediately,” he said.
One of the two senators introducing him at Tuesday's hearing was moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who vouched for her colleague’s character and swatted back the “character” attacks against him. Citing his prosecution of Klansmen and other incidents, she said, “These are not the actions of an individual who is motivated by racial animus.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley also praised Sessions’ record.
“We know him well,” said Grassley, R-Iowa. “… The members of this committee know him to be a leader who has served the people of Alabama and all Americans with integrity, with dedication and with courage.”
He spoke after protesters already were trying to disrupt the proceedings. As Sessions entered the hearing room, demonstrators in KKK costumes started shouting, and others held up signs that read, “Stand Against Xenophobia.”
The hearing kicks off what is likely to be a contentious confirmation process for President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
John Kelly, a retired Marine general, will have his hearing Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, while secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson heads to the Hill on Wednesday. Other key hearings have been delayed amid concerns from Democrats.
Democrats are expected to use the two days of hearings to challenge Sessions' commitment to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. They also are likely to press him on his hardline stance on immigration policy.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee’s top Democrat, offered words of caution in her opening remarks. Recalling then-candidate Donald Trump’s threat during the campaign to appoint a special prosecutor to look at Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, she said: “Mr. Chairman, that’s not what an attorney general does. … An attorney general does not investigate or prosecute at the direction of the president.”
She also critiqued what she called Sessions’ “extremely conservative agenda,” citing his votes against the so-called DREAM Act and other policies Democrats backed.
But Republicans have expressed strong support and are expected to secure more than enough votes needed to confirm him, including from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states.
The Alabama lawmaker is known as one of the most staunchly conservative members of the Senate, and has already drawn opposition from at least two Democrats, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In a dramatic turn, Booker -- one of three black senators -- said he will testify against Sessions on Wednesday, marking an apparently unprecedented move by a senator to testify against a colleague seeking a Cabinet post. In a statement, Booker accused Sessions of having a "concerning" record on civil rights and criminal justice reform and called his decision "a call to conscience." Booker has only been in the U.S. Senate since 2013, having previously served as Newark mayor.
If confirmed, Sessions, a four-term senator, would succeed outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch and would be in a position to dramatically reshape Justice Department priorities in the areas of civil rights, environmental enforcement and criminal justice.
Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and before that served as state attorney general and a United States attorney. He's been a reliably conservative voice in Congress, supporting government surveillance programs, objecting to the proposed closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and opposing as too lenient a 2013 bipartisan immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
He will look to turn the page from a failed confirmation hearing in 1986, when his nomination for a federal judgeship was derailed by accusations he had made racially insensitive comments as a federal prosecutor.
Civil rights advocates have rallied against his nomination, with protesters staging a sit-in last week at a Sessions office in Alabama and circulating letters opposed to his nomination. Advocacy groups have drawn attention to positions from Sessions they fear could weaken legal protections for immigrants, minority voters and gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Sessions' supporters have pointed to bipartisan work in the Senate and to supportive statements from some Democrats and even the son of a civil rights activist whom Sessions unsuccessfully prosecuted for voter fraud in Alabama.
“You know who I am. You know what I believe in. You know that I am a man of my word and can be trusted to do what I say I will do,” Sessions said Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.