Democrats force a delay in vote on President Trump's tribal jurisdiction foe

Indigenous women participate in the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Photo: Emilee Guevara

Democrats are slowing efforts by Republicans to seat a tribal jurisdiction foe at the Department of Justice.

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary met on Tuesday morning with the goal of advancing Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) to be Attorney General of the United States. But a partisan debate over the actions of President Donald Trump kept the panel from moving forward with a vote.

Democrats repeatedly slammed Trump for imposing a ban on refugees from certain countries where people of the Muslim faith make up the majority of the population. The executive order, signed on Friday afternoon by the new president, ensnared tens of thousands of citizens of other nations, some of whom had prior legal approval to enter the U.S.

But Democrats also raised concerns about Sessions and his record on Indian issues. They noted that he opposes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians even after he acknowledged that non-Indians contribute to extremely high rates of violence on tribal lands.

"How can anybody who is going to be in a position to enforce our laws turn their back on that, or suggest the law should apply to only certain classes of women?" said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a former chairman of the committee.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) said she can't support Sessions due to his stance on the Violence Against Women Act. The 2013 update to the law recognizes the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who abuse their partners.

"I've had so many tribes in my state that have had trouble getting anyone to prosecute their cases, and we simply allowed for dual jurisdiction when someone committed an act of violence that wasn't a member of the tribe," Klobuchar said. "That didn't make sense to me."

Sessions further sowed doubts when refused to repudiate his position on the matter. During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, he left open the possibility that the Department of Justice, under his leadership, might not support the landmark tribal provisions of VAWA.

"I would have to make a legal decision on that," Sessions said on January 10. "I'm not able to do so today."

Whether Sessions will uphold VAWA, or other federal laws, has come under intense focus in light of Trump's controversial directives. In addition to the refugee order, the new occupant of the Oval Office has called for the "immediate" construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border but did not include tribes in discussions. He also failed to treat tribes as partners in public safety initiatives even though many have sought more resources to combat human trafficking and drug trafficking activities tied to the border.

And whether Sessions can remain independent of Trump is a big issue. Sally Quillian Yates, an Obama administration holdover who was serving as acting attorney general, was fired on Monday night after she raised questions about the legality of the White House's refugee order and instructed federal prosecutors not to defend it.

"It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country," the White House said in a statement. Dana Boente, a federal prosecutor from Virginia, is now serving as the acting attorney general and he has agreed to defend the order.

Despite the furor, Republicans remain confident they will get Sessions confirmed. As he closed the business meeting that dragged on for hours, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary panel, promised to call a vote on Wednesday morning.

"He explained that he’s enthusiastically prepared to set aside his role as legislator and adopt a new role as our chief law enforcement officer. And he told us he’ll execute that role with strength, integrity, and independence in order to provide equal justice for all," Grassley said of his colleague in his opening statement. "That’s precisely what we want from an Attorney General. Equal and fair application of the law."

Republicans control the Senate so it's unlikely that Democrats can keep Sessions, or any other Trump pick, from joining the Cabinet. Still, they are doing their best to delay the process -- boycotts of committee meetings on Tuesday prevented votes on Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) to lead the Department of Health and Human Service, which includes the Indian Health Service, and on Steven T. Mnuchin to run the Department of the Treasury, which was a defendant in the Cobell trust fund lawsuit.

But in some corners of Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats were doing their best to display a united front. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held its first meeting of the 115th Congress on Tuesday morning as its new leaders vowed to work on tribal issues in a cooperative manner.

"I think this has always been a bipartisan committee," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the new chairman.

"I really welcome the bipartisanship," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the new vice chairman.

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