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Not since George Wallace, perhaps, has an Alabamian taken as passionate a stand for a lost cause as the one Jeff Sessions is taking now.
Bipartisan immigration legislation is making its way inexorably through the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although its ultimate fate is unclear, its passage by the committee is assured, and conservatives on the panel such as ranking Republican Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) are doing what they can to improve the bill. Even firebrands such as Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah) are holding fire.
Then there’s Sessions. The wiry Southerner is on a one-man crusade to undo the compromise drafted by the Gang of Eight (four of whom, two Democrats and two Republicans, are colleagues on the committee).
He has dominated the four days of hearings to “mark up” the bill.
As of midday Monday, he had spoken for two hours and 56 minutes — far longer than the second-place Grassley (2:24) and third-place Chuck Schumer of New York (1:38).
By lunchtime, Sessions had persuaded his colleagues to adopt just two of the 49 amendments he filed. (He voted against one of those two, after his colleagues modified it in a way he didn’t like.)
His most prominent defeat: a 17-1 vote last week against his proposal to restrict legal immigration. Before that bipartisan rebuke, he spent one hour and 11 minutes arguing his case.
On Monday morning, Sessions was up against a bipartisan majority again, this time opposing an amendment by fellow Republican Hatch to expand the use of fingerprinting.
Sessions objected, saying the proposal didn’t go far enough.
His face flushing crimson, he waved a Department of Homeland Security report in the air that he said was being kept secret because it concluded that such “biometric” immigration checks weren’t as costly as claimed.
“I’m highly offended!” Sessions shouted in his trademark twang. “This is why the American people are upset about this! They don’t trust their government! … Now, that’s the truth. And I’m getting dad gum tired of it.”
“Well,” Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., replied calmly, “a lot of people are tired of a lot of things.” Leahy tried to call a vote on the amendment, but Sessions interrupted.
“Mr. Chairman, I had some other things to say about it,” he announced. Sessions had his say, then Leahy tried again to move along.
“Wait, one more thing,” Sessions said. “I’m concerned about this. I have the floor.”
“I’m sorry, I thought you’d finished,” the chairman said.
“I know you like to interrupt,” the Alabamian complained. “I’m trying to explain a thought.”
“Repeat your statement as often as you want,” Leahy said. “You have the right.”
Sessions spoke again, and again. Then four of his seven GOP colleagues voted against him and sided with Democrats to approve Hatch’s amendment.
Even his fellow Republicans have at times become exasperated with him. Early in Monday’s session, Grassley was asking a question of Dick Durbin, D-Ill., when Sessions interrupted. “I just want to follow up a little bit on that,” he said.
Grassley said he didn’t want people to think “we’re asking these questions to stall. I’d like to not have a debate, if we could.”
“I’m not debating,” Sessions muttered.
This is true. Sessions isn’t debating. He’s doing whatever he can to retard the inevitable. At every opportunity, regardless of the amendment under consideration, he gives speeches about the evils of the compromise.
Even before the panel considered the first of its amendments Monday morning, Sessions piped up. “Um, I would just note that this is not a bill that strengthens border enforcement,” he declared, then proceeded to read a pair of letters from opponents.
Minutes later, Sessions demanded to be heard on an amendment, even though its sponsor, Grassley, had withdrawn it.
“The amendment is no longer before us,” Leahy told him.
“Well, I know, but it’s very important,” Sessions said.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., brought up a noncontroversial amendment about elder abuse. “All those in favor?” Leahy asked.
“Mr. Chairman?” Sessions broke in, requesting more time to speak.
After the senators voted down one of Sessions’ amendments (it would have denied a low-income tax credit to those earning legal status), they moved to an amendment by Chris Coons, D-Del., to simplify deportation hearings. “I’m very concerned about this amendment,” Sessions announced. After Coons tried to offer reassurance, Sessions declared, “I’m afraid your attempts to answer the questions I’ve raised are not sufficient.”
Leahy held a voice vote. The only audible “no” came from the man from Alabama.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.
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