WASHINGTON — “You’re not Eric Holder, are you?” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Loretta Lynch, the nominee to replace Holder as attorney general. “No sir, I’m not,” she answered.
With that response, delivered to laughs from the packed Senate chamber midway through today’s confirmation hearing, Lynch faced down the main challenge to her nomination as attorney general: making a fresh start with a new Republican majority in Congress that wants to assert its authority over what it sees as an overreaching White House and Justice Department.
President Barack Obama and Holder, the current attorney general, were frequent targets of attack as GOP lawmakers pushed Lynch to set a new tone for the agency. This was the first confirmation hearing for one of Obama's nominees since Republicans took control of the Senate majority. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the newly appointed chairman of the judiciary committee, said in his opening remarks that the Justice Department had become deeply politicized under Holder. “That’s what happens when the attorney general of the United States views himself, in his own words, as the president’s 'wingman,’” Grassley said.
Lynch, for her part, offered measured answers to questions ranging from Obama’s executive action on immigration to the IRS tax scandal to voter ID laws during the eight-hour-long hearing. When pressed on the constitutionality of the president’s immigration order, she offered a cautious defense. "I don't see any reason to doubt the reasonableness of those views," Lynch said. She also noted that she would still have the ability to target undocumented immigrants through other means, even if they had applied for the president’s reprieve.
She struck a more conciliatory note than her predecessor, who sparred repeatedly with GOP lawmakers during his six years in office. Holder was the first attorney general in history to be held in contempt by Congress for his failure to turn in documents related to the gun-trafficking scandal known popularly as "Fast and Furious."
“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress — a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” she said in her opening remarks. “Ultimately, I know we all share the same goal and commitment: to protect and serve the American people.”
Lynch was also prodded repeatedly to vouch for her independence from the White House. “You understand that your role is such that on occasion you have to say no to the person who actually appointed you to the job and who you support?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican from Alabama.
"Senator, I do understand that that is, in fact, the role and the responsibility of the attorney general," Lynch answered. "In fact, a necessary obligation on their part."
If confirmed, Lynch said she would focus her efforts on counterterrorism, enhancing the Justice Department’s abilities to protect against cyber-attacks and prosecuting a wide range of criminal activity — from predatory financial institutions to human traffickers — affecting "the most vulnerable among us."
Democrats on the judiciary committee, meanwhile, urged their colleagues to focus on Lynch’s qualifications. Lynch, who grew up in segregated North Carolina, would be the first African-American woman to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
“Some are trying to drag extraneous issues — executive orders on immigration, the IRS — into the fray to challenge her nomination because they can’t find anything in her record to point to,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Let me be clear, attempts to politicize this nomination to turn this exceptional nominee into a political point-scoring exercise are a disservice to the qualified candidate we have before us today.”
Lynch, the current U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has spent most of her career as a prosecutor and styled herself as less of an activist and less divisive than Holder, an outspoken ally of the president. She will inherit his expansive agenda at the Justice Department, from prosecuting terror suspects to mounting challenges to voter ID laws to addressing the national conversation about race and justice prompted by the recent killings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and other cities.
“Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Lynch said. “If confirmed as attorney general, one of my key priorities would be to work to strengthen the vital relationships between our courageous law enforcement personnel and all the communities we serve.”