By Jordain Carney - 11-29-16 19:27 PM EST
Senate Republicans are signaling they want to move quickly on Sen. Jeff Sessions's attorney general nomination.
The Alabama Republican kicked off his Capitol Hill lobbying effort on Tuesday, meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who told reporters that he wants a confirmation hearing before Inauguration Day.
Grassley noted that the first attorney generals for former President George W. Bush and President Obama came before their bosses were sworn into office.
"Historically, at least in the case of [John] Ashcroft and in the case of [Eric] Holder, we've had the hearings prior to the inauguration," Grassley said. "And it would be my intention to move ahead in that procedure that we did with Ashcroft and with Holder."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled that Grassley's call for an early hearing is part of a broader strategy.
"I've encouraged all our committee chairmen to go ahead and have hearings and markups on the Cabinet appointments," he told reporters. "In the past we've been able to confirm a number of the incoming president's Cabinet appointments on day one."
Sessions needs a simple majority in the Senate to win confirmation given the move by Democrats to gut filibuster rules that previously would have required a supermajority of 60 votes.
Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated Tuesday that he didn't regret the decision to change the filibuster.
Republicans are expected to have 52 seats in 2017, and one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), has already announced support for Sessions.
Every Republican member of the Judiciary Committee has pledged to support his nomination, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday that it's a "virtual certainty" that he will be confirmed.
"Beyond the merits of the nominees, which are very solid, you have the fact that the Democrats changed the rules to require 51 votes," said Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.
Democrats are signaling they intend to battle over Sessions.
Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee in a letter to Grassley said they expect the committee hearings to last at least four days.
"Senator Sessions has developed an extensive record on important issues within this committee's jurisdiction. ... The committee must devote adequate time to examining those issues," they wrote. "We urge you to ensure that the nomination process is thorough, transparent, and fair-not just a rubber stamp."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the panel's ranking member in the next Congress, joined Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Al Franken (Minn.), Chris Coons (Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) on the letter.
Sessions is generally well-respected by colleagues, and the Democrats noted they each have "personal and cordial relationships with him."
But Democrats are signaling a desire to make the Sessions fight about Donald Trump. They question whether Sessions, one of the earliest supporters of the president-elect, will be able to say no to Trump when he takes the reins at the Justice Department.
"He will have to be an independent attorney general who is willing to set aside personal beliefs and political positions in service of larger obligations," they wrote. "The attorney
general must be the people's lawyer, not the president's lawyer, and must enforce the laws with a dispassionate and even hand."
Sessions was blocked 30 years ago from a federal judgeship after allegations of racism surfaced during committee hearings. He has denied the accusations that he called an African-American assistant U.S. attorney "boy" or that he called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American."
He also voted for Holder, the first African-American attorney general, and in favor of extending the Civil Rights Act. At least nine law enforcement groups have backed his nomination.
Democrats said that the Senate "must ask whether Senator Sessions is the right man to lead the agency charged with securing and protecting the constitutional and civil rights of all Americans."
Grassley is warning Democrats that he won't allow them to slow walk Sessions's nomination or use the hearings to launch personal attacks against their colleague.
"The confirmation process of John Ashcroft to be Attorney General turned into a reckless campaign that snowballed into an avalanche of innuendo, rumor and spin," he said in a statement after the meeting. "That will not happen here."
Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who sits on the committee, stressed that Democrats want a "thorough" hearing but stopped short of saying they would object to Grassley's proposed schedule.
"If they can get prepared, I don't want to slow it down. We want to go into a thorough hearing, but we're not going to speed up this schedule," he said. "We want to do it in an orderly fashion."
Alex Bolton contributed.