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Sen. Cory Booker says Sessions lacks 'courageous empathy,' opposes his attorney general nomination

Sen. Cory Booker
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sen. Cory Booker

In an unprecedented move against a fellow senator, Democrat Cory Booker testified Wednesday that Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is not fit for the job of the nation's top law enforcer.

"The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country, and this demands a more courageous empathy than Sen. Sessions' record demonstrates," the New Jersey Democrat told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Booker said that race-related challenges cannot be solved if they are not confronted.

"If one is to be attorney general, they must be willing to continue the hallowed tradition in our country of fighting for justice for all, for equal justice for civil rights," Booker said. He added that he prays that his colleagues will join him in opposing Sessions' nomination.

Booker's office said that the Senate historian has been unable to find any previous instance of a sitting senator testifying against a fellow sitting senator nominated for a Cabinet position, according to NBC News.

Booker told MSNBC's "All In" on Monday that he thinks "these are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures." The senator cited Sessions' history of "consistently voting against or speaking out against key ideals of the Voting Rights Act, taking measures to try to block justice reform" as reasons for his testimony.

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also testified on the second day of the Alabama Republican's confirmation hearing.

"Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions' call for law and order would mean today what it meant for Alabama when I was coming up back then," said Lewis, who was born in Alabama.

Back then, the law was used to violate the rights of the poor. While the country has made progress, Lewis said there are forces that want to take the country back, but people want to go forward.

"It doesn't matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who's going to stand up and speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people that have been discriminated against," he said.

Later in the hearing, Jesse Seroyer, former U.S. Marshal, Middle District Of Alabama, said he never saw Sessions investigate a case with any political agenda or motive.

During Sessions' time as Alabama's attorney general, Seroyer said he earned respect for his willingness to do what was right.

"I've known Jeff Sessions for 20 years," Seroyer said. "He's a good and decent man. He believes in law and order for all the people."

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said Sessions has advanced an agenda that will greatly harm African-American people and communities.

"In closing, each and every senator who casts a vote to confirm Sen. Sessions will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator in an effort to move this country backwards, toward to a darker period in our shared history," he added.

In his opening statement, NAACP chief Cornell Brooks said Wednesday that his organization believes Sessions is unfit to serve and that he has "deep concerns" about Sessions' "consistent disregard for vulnerable populations." He said Sessions' voting record points toward an "unconstitutional xenophobia."

Brooks said it doesn't make sense to hold Sessions responsible for support he has received from white supremacist David Duke, but added that he doesn't believe the Alabama senator "has sufficiently described a Department of Justice fully committed with enforcing the nation's civil rights."

Sessions, facing criticism for past accusations of racially charged comments that helped to cost him a federal judgeship, pledged to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he would uphold protections for African-Americans. The 70-year-old Alabama Republican, an immigration hard-liner who previously served as that state's attorney general and also U.S. attorney in Alabama, said he understands the horrible effect of "systemic discrimination" against African-Americans.

David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed similar concerns, but declined to weigh in on how the the committee should vote on Sessions' nomination. He said Sessions "has shown blindness or outright hostility to concerns of the people whose rights he would be responsible to protect."

Sessions said Tuesday he would not support the "idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States." When asked whether "grabbing a woman by her genitals" would constitute sexual assault, Sessions responded that "clearly it would be."

Although Sessions has shifted his tone on several issues such as a potential Muslim ban and what constitutes sexual assault, Cole said Sessions failed to condemn Trump when the president-elect first made comments that ran counter to Sessions' present positions.

In October, Sessions defended Trump's comments in a 2005 tape in which he describes being able to do whatever he wants to women, including grabbing their genitals, because of his fame.

"I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch," Sessions told The Weekly Standard in October.

— CNBC's Jacob Pramuk and NBC News contributed to this report.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the spelling of Booker in one reference.