WASHINGTON – Loretta Lynch has been confirmed by the Senate to serve as the 83rd attorney general of the United States after an extended delay and despite protests from some Republicans that she will prove too beholden in her duties to President Obama, the man who nominated her to the position.
Lynch, 55, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was approved in a 56-43 vote with 10 Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, joining all 46 Democrats. The vote came after the nomination cleared a procedural hurdle in a 66-34 vote.
Lynch becomes the first African-American woman to hold the nation’s top law enforcement position. She replaces Eric Holder, who announced he was stepping down five months ago.
Obama praised the vote – despite the lengthy interval in bringing the nomination to the floor – asserting that “America will be better off for it.” He called her a “tough, independent and well-respected prosecutor.”
“Loretta’s confirmation ensures that we are better positioned to keep our communities safe, keep our nation secure and ensure that every American experiences justice under the law,” Obama said.
The nomination was not without controversy, even though most lawmakers acknowledged, some of them grudgingly, that Lynch was well qualified for the job.
The problem was her defense of the executive orders issued by the president last year that effectively protect, at least temporarily, an estimated 4 million undocumented aliens from deportation. Leading conservatives in the upper chamber, enraged by the White House action, insist the orders were unconstitutional and called on Lynch to denounce them at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She refused, instead telling the panel that Obama had, in her opinion, acted legally. The position attracted GOP opposition.
“Ms. Lynch’s prior laudable record as a federal prosecutor cannot overcome her commitment to violating the Constitution,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “I think it should be a bipartisan vote in rejecting this nomination. And in so doing, Congress will send the clear message that we expect the president to abide by the laws passed by Congress, not violate them.”
Sessions said those opposed to the nomination were “deeply concerned in this country about the president’s executive amnesty, the unlawfulness of it, the breadth of the arrogance of it to the point that it’s a direct assault on congressional power and legitimacy, a direct attack on laws passed by the people’s representatives and we’ve got a big problem.”
Lynch, he said, is committed to defending the president’s initiatives in court.
“We do not have to confirm someone to the highest law enforcement position in America if that someone has publicly committed to denigrating Congress, violating laws of Congress, violating even wishes of Congress and the American people,” he said.
Sessions was joined by, among others, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who said he would “very much like to see an attorney general who will return to the bipartisan traditions of the Department of Justice, of fidelity to law and that includes, most importantly, the willingness to stand up to the president who appointed you, even if he or she is from the same political party.”
But Lynch’s support for the executive orders regarding immigration “render her unsuitable for confirmation as attorney general of the United States.”
“She chose to embrace the lawlessness of the Holder Justice Department,” he said.
Cruz voted “no” on cloture but left on a fundraising trip before the final vote.
But Democratic supporters returned fire. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was particularly biting, saying she was “depressed” by the GOP attacks and maintaining that the rhetoric constituted “base play politics to the cheap seats.”
“It doesn’t get any uglier than this,” McCaskill said. “Because what we are seeing today, what my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are saying today, it doesn’t matter if you’re qualified, it doesn’t matter if you are one of the most qualified nominees for attorney general in the history of our country. That makes no difference. We have a new test – you must disagree with the president who nominates you.”
That standard, McCaskill said, will make it impossible for a president to fill any cabinet position.
“It is beyond depressing,” she said. “It’s disgusting. She is so qualified, she has worked so hard all her life. She is a prosecutor’s prosecutor. She has prosecuted more terrorists than almost anybody on the face of the planet.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, charged that Lynch “hasn’t been treated fairly.”
“As U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Ms. Lynch brought terrorists and cyber criminals to justice,” Leahy said. “She obtained convictions against corrupt public officials from both political parties. She fought tirelessly against violent crime and financial fraud. Ms. Lynch has protected the rights of victims. She has a proven record of prosecuting human traffickers and protecting children.”
Lynch, a native of North Carolina and a graduate of Harvard Law School, began her career with a large New York law firm before joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1990, where she prosecuted several corruption cases. In 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated her to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she oversaw the prosecution of several New York City police officers in the infamous Abner Louima assault case.
She left the prosecutor’s office in 2001 to go into private practice but returned as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York in January 2010 after being nominated by Obama.
Despite the confirmation, Democrats remain livid that the process took so long. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, declared that Lynch waited longer for confirmation – more than five months, beginning on Nov. 14, 2014 – than any other nominee in recent memory. The first 54 attorneys general combined – from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson – languished for a shorter period of time.
Part of the problem was the nomination got caught up in an unrelated legislative act. A bipartisan measure addressing sex trafficking was bottled up for six weeks in a dispute over abortion language. McConnell refused to consider the Lynch nomination until the issue was resolved. That dispute was settled and McConnell brought the nomination to the floor for consideration.
Reid charged that Republicans “stalled this good woman” and that she was the first attorney general nominee to face a filibuster.
The Lynch nomination, Reid said, “should have sailed through the Senate” but McConnell “pressed these people a little bit and suddenly they weren’t as interested in moving the Lynch confirmation along.” The result being “it dragged on for months.”
“I guess I was naïve in thinking my Republican colleagues would treat Loretta Lynch with the dignity that she and her office deserve,” Reid said. “Perhaps my mistake was forgetting that for Republicans this isn’t about Loretta Lynch – it’s about President Obama because Republicans will do anything they can to make President Obama’s life more difficult. They said they would do that when he was elected and they’ve stuck with it.”
Republicans who ultimately voted for Lynch were McConnell, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), and Rob Portman (Ohio).