In her confirmation hearing Wednesday, would-be attorney general Loretta Lynch managed to subtly distance herself on the issue of immigration from controversial current Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., while still backing her boss, the president.
As the first Obama Cabinet nominee to face the new GOP-led Senate, Lynch was prepared for a grilling in her bid to become the first African American woman to hold the nation’s highest law-enforcement job.
But after a moving opening statement about her North Carolina upbringing by a preacher father and librarian mother, and a warm reception from most Republicans as well as Democrats, Lynch appeared on her way toward rapid confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The toughest questioning from senators involved two men who were not in the hearing room. Time after time, Republicans attacked Holder and President Obama.
Holder was a mentor to Lynch, appointing her to chair a key Justice Department committee. But during her testimony Wednesday, Lynch avoided coming to his defense and instead strove to strike a contrast, painting herself as a career prosecutor who empathizes with the cop on the beat, is willing to use the death penalty and opposes legalization of marijuana.
Saying the Constitution — and not politics or personal views — would be her "lodestar," Lynch vowed to forge a more cooperative relationship with Congress.
"I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress,’’ she told lawmakers.
"You’re not Eric Holder, are you?" asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "How are you going to be different?"
"I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch," the nominee responded. "I pledge that I want to hear your concerns. I want to discuss those issues with you."
Holder angered some law enforcement agencies by taking an early, outspoken role in leading the Justice Department investigation into the police shooting last year of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo. On Wednesday, Lynch struck a different note.
"Throughout my career as a prosecutor, it has been my honor to work hand-in-hand with dedicated law enforcement officers and agents who risk their lives every day in the protection of the communities we all serve," Lynch said. "Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve."
Lynch, who is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, also struck a sharply different tone from Holder and Obama on marijuana, saying she opposes legalization. Asked specifically about statements by Obama that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol, Lynch made it clear that she did not share that sentiment.
"I will continue to enforce the marijuana laws, particularly with respect to the money-laundering aspect to it" if confirmed, she said.
Under Holder, the Justice Department decided not to prosecute most low-level marijuana sales and agreed to look the other way in Colorado and other states that have legalized it, as long as states take steps to protect children and prevent trafficking.
On immigration, however, Lynch took a tougher stand in support of Obama’s policy.
Lynch defended the opinion of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel that Obama had the authority in November to declare that nearly half of the immigrants living in the U.S. illegally would be eligible to receive temporary deportation deferrals and work permits.
Lynch said she had no "reason to doubt the reasonableness" of the Justice Department’s conclusion that the policy was legal, maintaining that posture under repeated questioning by Republican senators.
But she struggled when answering questions about citizenship and employment for immigrants living in the country illegally.
"Does a person who enters the country unlawfully have a right to citizenship?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). He pressed Lynch several times for an answer, before Lynch responded, "Citizenship is a privilege that has to be earned."
"I am a little surprised it took you that long," Sessions said.
He was also not happy with her response to questions about who has more rights to a job, a U.S. citizen or someone in the country illegally.
"If someone is here, regardless of status, I’d prefer they are participating in the workplace," Lynch said, raising eyebrows among the Republicans present.
Some of Lynch’s supporters admitted her answer was inartful, and one suggested she may have been concerned about alienating Hispanics and other Democratic constituencies.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced Lynch to the committee, gave her a chance to skim back the answer, and she took it.
He asked her whether she believed there is any federal right for an illegal immigrant to have a job. She said no, and added that her comment had reflected more of a personal preference than a policy.
Lynch was pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) about trying terrorists in civilian courts. Lynch said she believed in using both civilian courts and military commissions, depending upon the circumstances.
Obama and Holder have vowed to close down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer all of its occupants to the United States.
While a number of Republicans are expected to vote against Lynch to protest the president’s policies, it appeared that she had the Republican votes she needs to clear the Judiciary Committee and make it to the Senate floor.
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