WASHINGTON — Republicans have chosen Jeff Sessions to be their leader on the Senate Judiciary Committee, making the conservative Alabaman the public face of the GOP during coming battles over immigration and the next Supreme Court nominee.
A formal vote installing Sessions to replace Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- who announced last week that he was switching to the Democratic Party -- as ranking Republican on the committee could come as early as today.
Sessions, 62, couldn't be more different from Specter, as far as Republicans go. The latter is a moderate from Philadelphia who favors abortion rights and gun control. Sessions hails from the Bible Belt and has worked as a Sunday school teacher. He's known for his hard-line stance on immigration, having virulently opposed the massive reform bill that failed to pass the Senate two years ago.
Sessions' elevation is likely to lead to a more contentious nomination battle over who will replace Justice David H. Souter on the Supreme Court than might have occurred under Specter or other Republicans on the committee. And Democrats say it reinforces the GOP's conservative identity in the public's mind at a time when the party itself openly talks of a need to broaden its national appeal.
"Nothing says old-school Republican better than Jeff Sessions," said Phil Singer, a former campaign spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Promoting Sessions is a tangible sign that the GOP has settled its internal debate on whether to forge a broader party or a purer one. They've clearly decided to go down the purity road."
And on Monday, conservatives like former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi had plenty of praise for Sessions.
"Jeff does his homework. He's got a good staff. He will really dig into the records, the qualifications of the nominee," Lott said. "I am sure he will ask very pointed questions."
For Sessions, a former U.S. attorney from Alabama, the role of point man for the Republicans on a high-profile court nomination holds some irony. In 1986, his own bid for a federal judgeship came before the judiciary committee -- and died there. Several Republicans, including Specter, voted against him over concerns of racial insensitivity.
Since winning a Senate seat a decade later, Sessions has used his position on the judiciary committee to be a strong advocate for conservative judicial nominees.
"I'd call it poetic justice," Lott said.
Sessions has been a favorite of conservative court-watchers to assume the ranking slot on judiciary -- largely because they believe that with his experience as a federal prosecutor he will provide a counter-weight to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman and a former prosecutor himself.
"We'd like to have someone who can really take on Leahy," said Curt Levey, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group that lobbies for conservative nominees.
Specter's party shift has made the prospects of a Republican filibuster of President Obama's first high court nominee less likely. Still, Sessions will be charged with making the GOP's case against the nominee, should that be necessary. Obama attempted to head off such an assault in advance, consulting Monday with Specter and Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah on prospective nominees.
"He asked for recommendations, and I told him I would think it over and get back to him," Specter said after the call.
Sessions will take the judiciary post as part of a complicated arrangement that involves Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). Grassley has more seniority on the panel than Sessions, but cannot assume the post because he holds the ranking spot on the finance committee. Under the deal, Grassley would take over the top Republican post on judiciary in the 112th Congress, a year and a half from now.
Sessions' stance on immigration also could play an important role as the Senate gears up to consider a massive policy overhaul.
He's a major proponent of E-Verify, the voluntary government program that allows employers to certify whether prospective workers are legally authorized to work in the United States. During the debate over the federal stimulus bill in February, Sessions led a failed bid to add amendments that would have forced federal contractors receiving stimulus funds to use the E-Verify program.
"Now we have the No. 1 champion for the American workers on immigration issues being the ranking member," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an immigration-reduction advocacy group.
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Born: Dec. 24, 1946, Hybart, Ala.
Education: Bachelor's degree at Huntingdon College, law degree at University of Alabama
Military service: Army Reserve, 1973-86
Offices: Named U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama by President Reagan in 1981. Nominated for a federal judgeship by Reagan in 1986 but was not confirmed by the Senate. Served as Alabama attorney general, 1994-96. Elected to U.S. Senate in 1996 and now serving his third term.
Committees: Armed services, budget, energy, judiciary
Source: Los Angeles Times