As President Obama announced Saturday that he would nominate U.S. Atty. Loretta Lynch to be the nation’s next attorney general, obstacles had already begun to appear on the path toward her confirmation.
The administration’s rocky relationship with congressional Republicans on issues such as immigration as well as the understated prosecutor’s own ability to navigate political Washington could prove to be stumbling blocks as Lynch spends the next weeks introducing herself on Capitol Hill and preparing for her confirmation hearing.
At the White House on Saturday, Obama praised the Harvard-educated Lynch for shunning the spotlight that often comes with her current post, trying high-profile cases as the lead federal prosecutor for Brooklyn.
But as the president’s choice to replace Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who announced his retirement this year, Lynch will soon encounter the glare of opposition to Obama’s policies. She will face tough questions from senators during confirmation hearings that may begin in the remaining weeks of the post-election lame-duck Congress, though senators are likely to delay a vote on her nomination until after Republicans take over the Senate next year.
The confirmation process is already shaping up to serve as a proxy battle over areas of disagreement between the GOP and the administration, especially Obama’s use of executive actions, which Republicans have attacked as overreach.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah hinted Saturday at the confirmation fight to come, indicating that they plan to grill Lynch over the changes Obama is planning make in immigration law enforcement. The president has said that without a legislative overhaul of the immigration system, he will use the powers of the executive branch to act unilaterally on the issue by the end of this year.
The senators said the new attorney general must “demonstrate full and complete commitment to the law,” and “Loretta Lynch deserves the opportunity to demonstrate those qualities, beginning with a statement whether or not she believes the president’s executive amnesty plans are constitutional and legal.”
The administration should welcome the confirmation hearing to make its case, say advocates for immigrants who have been pressuring Obama to act this year after Congress failed to pass legislation.
“Bring it on,” said David Leopold, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., and counsel to leading advocates of immigration changes. “She has the law and she has the facts on her side.”
Senators may find it difficult to block Lynch, who has twice been confirmed by the chamber, first after President Clinton chose her to lead the U.S. attorney’s office and again when Obama nominated her to return to the position.
Obama’s choice of Lynch over several other potential nominees was as seen as both politically safe and historically bold — giving him the opportunity to follow the nation’s first African American attorney general with the first black woman in the job.
But it was not without risk, given that she is seen as inexperienced with Washington and politics.
“Loretta might be the only lawyer in America who battles mobsters and drug lords and terrorists and still has the reputation for being a charming person,” he said as Lynch stood by his side for Saturday’s announcement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. “That’s probably because Loretta doesn’t look to make headlines, she looks to make a difference. She’s not about splash, she is about substance.”
With her husband and stepchildren watching from the audience, Lynch noted that the Justice Department is the only Cabinet agency named for an ideal.
“Our work is both aspirational and grounded in gritty reality,” she said. The work, she added, is ennobling and profoundly challenging.
Lynch, who was raised in Greensboro, N.C., the daughter of a school librarian and fourth-generation Baptist minister, may have sparked partisan interest, however, as she praised Holder as a leader “whom I admire” for pushing the Justice Department to “live up to its name.”
Holder, perhaps more than any other Cabinet member, has been relentlessly criticized by Republicans in Congress for his handling of administration policies.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is expected to become the Senate majority leader next year, did not indicate whether Lynch would be acceptable to his party. But he said the confirmation should be voted on by the new Senate.
“Ms. Lynch will receive fair consideration by the Senate,” McConnell said. “And her nomination should be considered in the new Congress.”
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was at Saturday’s event at the White House, said he would consult “in coming days” on timing with the likely new committee chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Grassley, who has long sparred with Holder, noted it was rare for a U.S. attorney to be elevated to the top position at the Justice Department.
“I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress and how she proposes to lead the department,” Grassley said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, called Lynch “a consummate professional” and urged “swift confirmation.”
She “has a first-rate legal mind and is committed in her bones to the equal application of justice for all people,” he said.
Lynch came to prominence in New York in the late 1990s as the supervisor of the team that successfully prosecuted two police officers for the sexual assault with a broomstick of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Three other officers were acquitted.
For more Washington coverage, follow @lisamascaro