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Senate Committee Considers Attorney General Nominee Sessions; GOP Leaders Giving Weekly Address; Ryan: "The Rollout was Confusing" on Travel Ban. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2017 - 10:00   ET




As attorney general who says he believes a woman's well-established, fundamental rights are unconstitutional is essentially inviting states to pass more restrictions to women's access to health care, knowing full well the Justice Department may, in fact, support those in court. In fact, I asked whether the Justice Department under his leadership would seek to overturn roe or change precedent on reproductive rights. He left the door open by saying, and I quote, "Such decisions would depend upon the unique circumstances of the case or cases as they arise. I will not prejudge the issues," end quote.

And when asked by Senator Blumenthal whether he believes a woman should be punished for having an abortion, as the president said during the campaign, Senator Sessions could have given a simple no answer, but he did not. He refused to rule out punishment for women. Instead, he merely noted that while the Supreme Court had upheld the right to an abortion that right had been limited by various state and federal statutes. Quote, "Many of which have been upheld as constitutional - excuse me, yes, constitutional," end quote. And noted that his role as attorney general would be the faithfully enforce all laws. He clearly left open the possibility that he would enforce laws that punish women.

The final issue I'd like to touch on, Mr. Chairman, is civil liberties. Ever since 9/11, we have had an intense struggle between civil liberties and national security. I think people know I believe in strong national security, but I also believe we must never sacrifice our values or fundamental constitutional rights as Americans. It's clear from the record, the nominee believes otherwise.

Senator Sessions was one of only nine senators in 2005 to vote against the Detainee Treatment Act which contains Senator McCain's and my bipartisan amendment that prohibited cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment for individuals in American custody. In 2008, on the Senate floor, he praised a prior attorney general for refusing to rule out the use of waterboarding in the future and claimed that enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary to stop additional terrorist plots. Specifically, he stated, and I quote, "I'm glad attorney general Mukasey is able to say waterboarding was utilized only three times and that it had not been used in five years. But I am glad he also said he would not say it would never be done again," end quote. That's not true. In fact, one detainee alone was subjected to waterboarding 183 times. And as the Senate Intelligence Committee's extensive study on the CIA's interrogation program revealed, the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, particularly waterboarding, were and are ineffective and did not produce actionable intelligence.

And in the summer of 2016, the nominee was 1 of 21 senators to vote against prohibiting waterboarding and other techniques not found in the army field manual. He has even expressed support for the detention of Americans captured on American soil to be held without charge or trial. These positions give me no confidence the nominee will uphold our laws and civil liberties as attorney general.

Mr. Chairman, today we are being asked to vote on the one person who will lead the Department of Justice and its 113,000 employees charged with defending the interests of the United States according to our nation's laws and ensuring fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

[10:05:06] We're being asked to vote on a nominee that will have to stand up to a president who is clearly willing to ignore the law and even issue orders in violation of the Constitution. We are being asked to determine whether this nominee's record demonstrates that he will have the objectivity to enforce the law for all Americans and be an independent attorney general and not an arm of the White House.

Yesterday, early in the evening, we clearly saw what a truly independent attorney general does. Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who enjoyed broad bipartisan support when she was confirmed as deputy attorney general declared that under her leadership, the department could not defend Trump's Executive Order on immigrants and refugees.

Here's what she wrote. And it's important. And I quote, "My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution's solemn obligation to all we seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities, nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful," end quote.

Consequently, for as long as I am the attorney general, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order unless until and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so. Members, that statement took guts. That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to stand up and say no. It took the courage of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus who stood up to President Nixon. That is what an attorney general must be willing and able to do. I have no confidence that Senator Sessions will do that. Instead, he has been the fiercest, most dedicated and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda and has played a critical role in the clearing house for policy and philosophy to undergird the implementation of that agenda. With that in mind, I must vote no. Thank you.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH, (R) UTAH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I enthusiastically support the nomination of our colleague and long-time member of this committee, Senator Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general of the United States. His qualifications for this position are unmatched in American history. None of the previous 83 U.S. attorneys general had his experience in both developing and implementing criminal justice policy.

As I reviewed the widespread support for his nomination, I was struck by the strong relationship between support for him and knowledge about him. The longer and better people knew Jeff Sessions, the more they support his nomination. Mr. Chairman, one of the letters we received was from Judge Louis Freeh, one known to all of us as the director of the FBI under President Bill Clinton. He writes, quote, "I have served and interacted with Senator Sessions for over 25 years."

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to break away from this hearing for just a minute. You're watching NEWSROOM with Carol Costello.

And good morning, I'm Carol Costello, this is the Senate Judiciary Hearing for Jeff Sessions' nomination to attorney general.

You just heard an impassioned speech by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, saying she will vote no on his nomination. And you see Orrin Hatch here, singing the praises of Jeff Sessions. I would suspect he would vote yes. It is a busy day here in the NEWSROOM. We expect the GOP leadership to hold a press conference at any time now. So, I want to go live to Washington as we await this GOP presser to Sunlen Serfaty to sort of like put this day in perspective for us. Good morning, Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Carol. Yes, very busy day up here on Capitol Hill as you have many of President Trump's cabinet nominees inching towards confirmation. And we just saw the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, really with a very fiery statement speaking out against the flurry of Executive Actions and Executive Orders that President Trump has taken in his first week and putting this into context against the nominee that they are considering today and will vote on today, Senator Sessions.

[10:10:10] She blasted in her words the seemingly unconstitutional Executive Action. She said the most egregious of them all that's deeply concerning is President Trump's immigration travel ban. That Executive Order he took over the weekend. Here's more of what she had to say moments ago.


FEINSTEIN: I believe the broad -- this broad order goes against our core values. It disregards our obligations under international agreements, undermines critical protections in our Constitution and it effectively bans one religion, the Muslim faith.


SERFATY: And she later went on to say that she will vote no to Senator Sessions. Her point being that - she believed that in her words, that Senator Sessions doesn't have the independence or the objectivity to uphold the laws of the United States. She said she is not confident that he will do that. Certainly a contentious statement, but I should note, Carol, that he is expected to pass out of committee. That will then be sent to the full Senate likely for a larger Senate vote later this week. Carol?

COSTELLO: That's right. It is extremely likely that Jeff Sessions will be confirmed as the attorney general of the United States. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you so much. But perhaps, to illustrate the chaotic rollout of this temporary travel ban, five days after President Trump signed that Executive Order, his new Department of Homeland Security secretary will hold a press conference at noon Eastern to tell the country the operational implementation of the president's Executive Order.

He will tell the country exactly how the administration plans to execute Mr. Trump's temporary ban on immigration. I want to bring in CNN's justice correspondent Evan Perez. What do you suppose is going on within the Justice Department right now?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, at this moment, the Justice Department is trying to figure out how they're going to defend this Executive Order. Obviously, it's been a bit of a whiplash for the last 24 hours where you had Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general first instructing the lawyers there that they were not going to defend this Executive Order because she did not believe that it was lawful. And in this memo essentially daring the president to fire her, which he did four hours later or so.

Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria who is now the acting attorney general, says that he will defend the Executive Order. So, we expect that in the court cases that are going around the country that we're going to see Justice Department lawyers present a defense.

But I've got to tell you, Carol. Over the last few days, you described some of the chaotic rollout of this. That included the defense of this Executive Order. You had some Justice Department lawyers showing up in court over the weekend and they clearly were not prepared to defend this just because they did not know, they did not know what this order was about and how to defend it. He did not have time to get their legal arguments ready. And we also saw, you know --

COSTELLO: Evan, I have to interrupt you. Paul Ryan has just approached the podium and the microphone. This is the GOP weekly leadership press conference. So, let's switch to that. Let's listen to what Paul Ryan has to say.


REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI) HOUSE SPEAKER: -- feel like they have insurance. We hear it from the people who have been denied choices. This law is collapsing and we need to step in and restore real choices and real competition, so that we can actually lower costs for patients and families. Second, under the Congressional Review Act, the House will expedite five resolutions to block costly, harmful regulations. This includes turning the page on what has been for the last eight years a war on coal jobs in America. These measures will deliver relief from regulations that threaten to wipe out thousands, if not thousands of jobs in the energy industry.

In addition, we're setting in motion reforms for a more sensible regulatory reform system. Earlier this month, we passed the Reins Act which requires Congressional approval of any new major regulation. And yesterday, the president took action to cap the costs that regulators can impose each year. This regulatory budget is something that we actually proposed in our agenda that we ran on last year and we're very excited to see it off and running.

So, this is not just about blocking bad regulations. This is about smart regulations. This is about jobs and economic opportunity and entrepreneurs and small businesses and manufacturers. We want to pave the way for real growth, higher wages and more success for the workers and the small businesses who are at the heart of our economy.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R-CA) MAJORITY LEADER: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Regulatory reform has been a primary focus of this House since week one. We've been engaged in a two-step process. The first step was changing the structure of Washington, putting the power back to the people. That's where you saw the passage of the Reins Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act.

[10:15:00] Now, we're starting on part two, the Congressional Review Act. We're going to -- I'm not going to go through the full list that we're going to have this week but let me highlight just two of them.

We will start with the Stream Buffer Rule. Stream Buffer Rule will actually, could affect more than 64 percent of the counties coal reserve. Put them on off limits. We're talking roughly -- somewhere between 40,000 to 78,000 jobs are threatened. Talk about bringing America's energy back, all the above jobs and a whole part of America that has lost work. This regulatory reform bill, the CRA, will see a fundamental change.

Secondly, we're going to bring up on Friday, the Bureau of Land Management Methane Rule. I'm going to have Mr. Tipton talk a little bit more about that. But what you're finding with the Congressional Review Act, they now become privilege starting January 30th. You'll see for the next two weeks, looking at those rules, finding the common sense for the last legislative days, ways that we can keep the environment safe and still bring jobs back to America. That's the focus of this House. The focus of this Congress and we will get the work done.

REP. STEVE SCALISE, (R-LA) MAJORITY WHIP: The House is going to pass bills this week to bring jobs back to America by rolling back some of the radical regulations that were put in place by unelected bureaucrats in Washington. I think it's exciting to see that we're continuing to focus on creating jobs and getting our economy moving again and rebuilding the middle class that a lot of Barack Obama's policies helped erode.

I think, if you look in the last week, it's been very significant for those of us who stand up in defense of innocent life. Last week, before we left for Philadelphia, we passed historic legislation making permanent the Hyde Amendment, a bill that was very bipartisan, a bill that most Americans support, the idea that taxpayer money should not go towards financing and funding abortion. And then we saw hundreds of thousands of people come to Washington for the march for life. And I applaud the thousands of people from Louisiana and the hundreds of thousands of young people who came to Washington to stand up for an innocent life.

And then, of course, later today, President Trump is going to announce his Supreme Court pick to replace Antonin Scalia. Looking forward to a spirited debate about the foundation of our democracy. The way that the Constitution is supposed to be carried out by the judicial branch.

I think it's important to note, right now, that you have already got Senate Democrats saying that they're going to oppose President Trump's pick for the Supreme Court before they even know who it is. That's an incredible level of irresponsibility by Senate Democrats who should be looking to carry out their role of advice and consent instead of prejudging somebody before they even know who that's going to be. So, I would hope that the Senate actually does their job and Senate Democrats that are trying to block President Trump's agenda would actually allow him to carry out his job and just look at his picks for cabinet secretaries.

At this point, in Barack Obama's tenure as president in his first term, just in his first week, Barack Obama had 11 of his 15 cabinet secretaries already confirmed and working for the American people. Today, Donald Trump only has two of his 15 cabinet secretaries approved by the Senate. So, it's time for Senate Democrats to stop blocking the work that the American people elected President Trump to do. And let's get our economy going again like we're taking action in the House to do.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R-WA), REPUBLICAN CONFERENCE CHAIRWOMAN: Our unified Republican government is an opportunity for positive disruption from the status quo that we've seen the last few years under President Obama, the status quo that puts bureaucrats before people, with their pages and pages of rules and regulations. So this week, we're taking action on the explosion of regulations that we've seen hurting families and costing us jobs all across the country.

It's why we wanted Representative Tipton to join us because he's really been a leader hard at work on the Congressional Review Act to help roll back some of the most damaging regulations of the last eight years. Every day, we hear stories of people that are stuck in the red tape, colleges and universities bound by mandates, tech companies and start-ups trying to deal with the overtime rules, families in small business owners that are just trying to get by.

But even with all of this happening, we're focusing our efforts to repeal Obamacare and replace it with people first health care. That's going to work for everybody. This week at energy and commerce, we're holding hearings on the next steps for replacing Obamacare. Republicans are working to make sure pre-existing conditions are covered. The insurance market is stabilized. And Medicaid is strengthened and prioritized for those who need it most. President Trump has made clear that he is a man of action and we are ready.

[10:20:08] REP. SCOTT TIPTON, (R) COLORADO: Good morning, everyone. I'm Scott Tipton out of the Colorado's 3rd Congressional district. The House will take important action this week to undo some of the most harmful attacks previous administration perpetrated on hard-working Americans across the country during its final months. I'm a firm believer that when done right, regulations play an important role in keeping our communities safe and secure. But what we saw out of the Obama administration during its final months went far beyond safety and security.

Our concerns about the Stream Buffer Rule, venting imploring rules and the BLM's 2.0 rules and many others fell on deaf ears during the Obama administration's final days. What we saw was an outgoing administration more concerned about approval ratings than about the livelihoods of American families. We lost 68,000 coal mining jobs during the Obama administration. Standing here in Washington, it may be hard to imagine the impact of losing those jobs.

But for families, families that I visit with every time that I'm home, it means falling behind on your mortgage, struggling to be able to put food on the table for your children and picking which bills will have to go unpaid this month. And the twilight hours of the Obama administration, the Department of Interior finalized a rule that applied to every coal mine in every state in the country, when it was originally only supposed to apply to the surface vines and six Appalachian states.

The rule amends over 400 existing regulations including some that are normally in the jurisdiction of other agencies. The complex and duplicative requirements in the rule could lead to a 60 percent reduction in coal production in a state like Colorado. There's no clearer example of a federal agency implementing a redundant one size fits all mandate than this last-ditch effort to regulate the coal industry out of business.

Another great example of duplicative regulation issued by the Obama administration is the BLM venting imploring rule. The authority to regulate air quality and the Clean Air Act resides solely with the Environmental Protection Agency and cooperating state agencies which is why in May of this last year, the EPA finalized its own rule on methane emissions.

In point and fact, the BLM venting imploring rule was largely based on a law passed by the state of Colorado to limit methane emissions. The EPA's own data shows that from 1990 to 2014, methane emissions fell, fell by over 5.5 percent. So not only did the BLM overstep its jurisdictional authority, it did so in states and private industry, have already taken successful steps to improve efficiency and energy in the sector. While the Stream Buffer Rule and the methane venting imploring rules are two that are harmful examples in many districts like my own.

All of the Congressional Review Act resolutions that we are considering this week, will provide relief for Americans in diverse communities across the country. The House is responding to the signal that Americans sent on November 8th. We're saying -- no to overly burdensome one size fits all federal regulations. There is a better way to regulate and the House has already taken first steps to help us get there.

Earlier this month, we passed Midnight Rules Relief Act and the Reins Act, both of which set the stage for implementing the -- regulatory reform plan that is included in our better way agenda. Using the Congressional Review Act this week to roll back the Obama administration's last-minute regulatory overreach, puts us on the path to advance the policies we need to create jobs, to keep people earning more of their hard-earned money in their own pockets and to restore confidence in America that unfortunately has been missing in many of our communities these past eight years.

RYAN: Anybody have any questions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to know what your thoughts are on the president's Executive Action on refugees and also, is there any immediate role that Congress can play in addressing some of the concerns?

RYAN: Yes. So, first off, I had a long talk with Secretary Kelly yesterday and I am very pleased and confident that he is on a going forward basis, going to make sure that things are done correctly. Look, the president has a responsibility to the security of this country.

Go back. Remember when we had the Paris shooting. Remember when we heard about credible intelligence that ISIS was trying to infiltrate refugee populations? We passed. I think it was called the SAFE Act with 289 votes to take a pause in the refugee program, to improve our vetting standards. That bill went to the House and didn't go anywhere in the Senate.

[10:25:10] So, what is happening is something that we support which is we need to pause and we need to make sure that the vetting standards are up to snuff so we can guarantee the safety and security of our country. That is what this does. We want that goal to be achieved. I support the refugee resettlement program. We're a generous country. It's important. But we can be generous and watch our national security at the same time.

That's why I am confident that Secretary Kelly, along with other cabinet members are going to make sure that we have the proper review in vetting, so we can get this program up and running with the proper national security safeguards. Now, I think it's regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout of this. No one wanted to see people with green cards or special immigrant visas like translators get caught up in all of this.

And so, I think there was regrettably the rollout was confusing but on a go forward basis, I'm confident that Secretary Kelly is going to make sure that this is done correctly, that they get a good review and that we're going to make sure that we get this program up and running with the kind of vetting standards that we all want to see.

There's always a role for Congress. Congress oversees these things all of the time. But this is clearly in keeping with the president's authorities. We all know that -- take a look at immigration law. Look at on the way the refugee laws work. And this is very similar to what we passed a year ago after the Paris shooting. We just want to make sure that it's very clear, that people understand what this is and is not and that on a going forward basis that it's executed and implemented, so that we can have both. We can have a good refugee and resettlement program while making sure that we don't have people trying to infiltrate a refugee's program and take advantage of us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Speaker, when you do a cost benefit analysis, people from these countries haven't carried out deadly terrorist attacks here in the United States since 9/11 but you have a lot of military experts, intelligence experts warning that this is going to serve as a recruiting tool for ISIS. Are you sure that this is going to make -


RYAN: I think the rhetoric surrounding this could be used as a recruiting tool and I think that's dangerous. But, remember, these countries were named by the Obama administration. These countries were named in legislation that we talked about last year. So, these countries were named by the Obama administration and there is an issue with respect to terrorists trying to infiltrate our refugee population.


So, we're not here to debate. We're here to answer your questions. There is nothing wrong with taking a pause and making sure we had the proper vetting standards in place so that we do not have a problem like France had with Paris.


RYAN: Congressional standards help the administration all of the time. I'll refer you to the Judiciary Committee in the specific aspects of this. As you know, we weren't involved in this. Chairman Goodlatte walked our members through how this worked. I would refer you to him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you talk about the role of Congress, these are temporary measures. Do you plan to pass any measures? A report out of "The Daily Times" that Trump administration is looking at further immigration limits? What do you have planned in the works and when were you told specifically about this order? Some of the members said they were --

RYAN: Pretty much at the time it was being issued. I don't know exactly, specifically. We were briefed on the contents of it as it was being rolled out. And then, I had a very good conversation with Secretary Kelly to make sure that we separate fact from myth. That we make sure that the confusion gets cleared up very quickly. Clearly, none of us want to see people with green cards get implicated in this. And that's not the goal here.

So, we're going to make sure that's very much cleared up on a go forward basis. And look, what the president has asked us to focus on and something that we completely agree on, something we ran on, is we got to secure our border. We had a border security problem that's what the physical barrier on the border is all about. And we have security concerns given this age of terrorism, given the fact that we have drugs coming across our border, we have an opioid problem. There are lots of reasons why our focus, first and foremost is on border security.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.


COSTELLO: All right. We're going to break away from this press conference. It was the GOP weekly leadership press conference to be exact. And let's talk about what just transpired. I want to bring back in our panel, politics editor at "" and professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University, Jason Johnson. Columnist for "The Daily Beast," and "Roll Call" Patricia Murphy is here, and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Laura Coates and George Terwilliger who served as the acting attorney general under George H.W. Bush. And George thanks for sticking around as I appreciate you being here. I want to start with what Paul Ryan said about Donald Trump's temporary immigration ban. He said the rollout was confusing, but I guess in the end, Jason, he supports it?

JASON JOHNSON, POLITICS EDITOR, "THEROOT.COM": Of course he does because the Republicans are pretty much going to support anything that Donald Trump says. This is the issue that I have with, from a legal, in a moral, in a political standpoint.