Treatment of black lawmakers becomes flashpoint of Sessions hearing

Democrats on Capitol Hill left the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room seething Wednesday. But it was not the testimony from witnesses that caused the only stir.

Members of Congress and outside progressive groups were visibly disturbed and disappointed that several members of the Congressional Black Caucus were not given the courtesy of testifying earlier in the committee proceedings on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general — and instead left to testify at the end of the second day of hearings alongside outside witnesses.

“To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, causing applause from several members of the audience in an already palpably tense hearing room.

“I’ve been here almost 30 years and never seen anything like this,” Rep. John Lewis told a group of reporters after the hearing.

Things got off to a rocky start earlier in the week when Politico first reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein had requested a “members-panel” in order for three black lawmakers — Lewis, Richmond and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — to testify at Sessions’ confirmation hearing this week.

Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley instead scheduled a third panel for the lawmakers on the second day of testimony, with additional outside supporters of Sessions — a strategic move that was perceived by congressional sources as a way to not only diminish testimony of the CBC members, but an unprecedented departure with Senate custom.

“Asking three members of Congress to sit and wait until the end of the hearing to testify — likely at the same time the Senate will be holding important budget votes — is deeply unfair,” Feinstein said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Grassley told CNN that Feinstein’s request came late, after the hearing had already been set, and “it would have been disrespectful to make the other witnesses wait who were already slated to testify on the citizen panel,” and so he tried to “accommodate all witnesses in the fairest way.”

A spokesperson for Sessions declined to comment.

But Senate Democrats went out of their way to highlight the issue Wednesday at the culmination of two days of hearings where the treatment of African-Americans in the justice system loomed large.

“I regret that the chairman has decided to break committee tradition and make these members of Congress wait until the end of the hearing to speak. That is not how other chairmen have treated fellow members of Congress,” said former chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy in his opening remarks.

Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also spoke out on the controversy on Senate floor Wednesday.

“I regret that a sitting US senator had to fight to earn the right to speak at the Judiciary hearing … and I regret the manner in which he was treated,” Schumer said.

Whether insult, oversight or otherwise — the timing of the witnesses’ testimony did not distract from the content of their statements, as TV cable outlets carried the testimony live Wednesday afternoon.

Booker said after his testimony he was not bothered by Grassley’s scheduling choice, nor any criticism he has received from colleagues for testifying against a fellow senator.

“Yeah, I’ve been criticized,” Booker said. “(B)ut if you’re not being criticized in America, you’re probably not doing a lot of good things.”

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