Jeff Sessions became attorney general on Thursday, ending a vicious struggle surrounding his confirmation.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia was the only lawmaker to break with his or her party, with the vote coming down 52-47. The closeness underscores the divisive nature of Sessions's nomination, which Democrats strongly opposed based on his civil rights record.
After the vote, Sessions expressed gratitude and a desire to work together. "I want to thank those who after it all found sufficient confidence to confirm me as the next attorney general," he said. "Denigrating people who disagree with us, I think, is not a healthy trend for our body."
Opinion fell sharply along party lines, with Republicans praising his honesty, integrity, and commitment to justice.
"He's honest. He's fair. He's been a friend to many of us, on both sides of the aisle," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "It's been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks. This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law. He believes strongly in the equal application of it to everyone."
Senator McConnell’s comments were in response to weeks of Democrats' attacks on Sessions's civil rights record, which Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia said “raises doubts about whether he can be a champion for those who need this office most.”
The Republican National Committee called the attacks "obstructing."
"That Democrats would try to skew Sessions' strong civil rights record and consistent adherence to rule of law in a partisan effort to block their colleague's nomination shows their only commitment is to blindly obstructing this administration," said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
The record in question included past allegations of racist comments, calling an African-American prosecutor “boy,” saying the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered "un-American," and opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – stances for which he failed to win Senate confirmation to become a federal judge in 1986.
Sessions has denied that he addressed the prosecutor as "boy," but has acknowledged calling the Voting Rights Act a "piece of intrusive legislation."
The argument over the fitness of Sessions to serve came to a head on Tuesday when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts tried to quote a letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., alleging Sessions engaged in voter intimidation during the Civil Rights era. Republican Senators, led by McConnell, used the procedural Rule XIX to silence Senator Warren for “impugning a peer.”
Next, Sessions will trade the political battle for a legal one, as he assumes the leadership of a Justice Department currently on the attack, trying to put an end to a Seattle judge’s temporary ruling blocking President Trump’s contentious travel ban.
Sessions is known as an immigration hardliner who has sought to reduce immigration into the United States, both legal and illegal.
As attorney general he succeeds acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was fired late last month for refusing to defend the travel ban, which targets seven majority Muslim countries.
During Ms. Yates's 2015 confirmation hearing to be deputy attorney general, Sessions himself asked her about her views on the nation's top law enforcement official's responsibility to check executive power.
"Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say 'no' to the president if he asks for something that's improper?" he asked her. He later asked, "If the views he wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?"
After Sessions, 14 of Trump’s cabinet-level nominees remain to be confirmed. Next up is the Senate’s Friday confirmation vote of Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia as the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.