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Republicans are set to name conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions as the leader of their side on the likely coming debate when President Barack Obama nominates a Supreme Court justice. Sessions' appointment is a signal that the party will not shy away from a protracted fight despite risks of being cast as obstructionist.
The Alabama senator's ascension as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee comes more than 20 years after the same committee rejected him for a federal judgeship after President Ronald Reagan nominated him. The argument of the anti-Sessions senators was that he was hostile toward civil rights and was insensitive on questions of race.
Ironically, Sessions would replace Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate who was one of just two Republicans in 1986 to oppose Sessions as a US district court judge. Specter left the party last week to become a Democrat, creating the vacancy atop the committee just as Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement.
The choice of Sessions has excited conservatives who see him as a sharp lawyer with well-established legal views after a career as a prosecutor and Alabama attorney general.
Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, agreed that Sessions has a firm grasp on the issues but said making Sessions "the face of the party" for the Supreme Court nomination might not play well symbolically.
Goldman, who has written a book on judicial nominations, said Specter's defection resulted in part from the perception that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right.
"Instead of responding to that by placing a moderate as the ranking Republican, they go for a very conservative Southern Republican who represents everything that has driven Specter and other moderate Republicans out of the party," Goldman said.
Sessions is among the most conservative senators, taking hard-line positions on issues such as immigration.
His nomination as a judge two decades ago ran into trouble when civil rights groups complained that he had pursued politically motivated voter-fraud charges against black leaders as a US attorney in south Alabama.
Others came forward to say he had made racially insensitive comments, including calling groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People "un-American" and agreeing with someone else's statement that a white civil rights lawyer was "a disgrace to his race."
Sessions said the comments were taken out of context or fabricated. He and his supporters argued that Democrats were using the allegations to reject Sessions over honest ideological differences.
Sessions later was elected Alabama's attorney general in 1995 before winning his Senate seat in 1996.
"It's a thrill as someone who spent 15 years full-time in federal courts to have this opportunity," he said.
He said any nominee is entitled to a fair hearing but also should expect "probing questions," and he did not rule out under the right circumstances a Republican-led filibuster, a method of uninterrupted debate designed to delay or kill legislation or, in this case, a nomination.
Sessions, whose appointment was being made official on Tuesday, is technically fourth in line in seniority on the committee, but the others are either restricted under committee term limits or would have to give up top positions on other panels to take the Judiciary spot.