The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be the 83rd U.S. attorney general and the first African American woman to hold the post
The vote was 12 to 8, with 3 Republicans voting in favor of Lynch, who is the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
Lynch's nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where she seems assured of eventual approval. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has so far been noncommittal about when he will schedule the vote. Democrats have complained that Lynch's nomination has been pending for more than three months.
Republican opponents of Lynch have mostly not criticized her, but have used the nomination as a proxy for their opposition to President Obama's executive action that would shield from deportation several million immigrants in the country illegally.
Lynch has testified that the legal underpinning for that directive was "reasonable."
The committee debate also featured a spirited disagreement about the constitutional role of senators in confirming nominees, one that did not stricly follow party lines.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee chair and a Lynch supporter, excoriated fellow Republicans in the House who said in a letter that voting for Lynch was a vote in favor of "lawlessness" on the part of President Obama.
"That is ridiculous on its face," Hatch said angrily.
"The case against her nomination, as far as I can tell, essentially ignores her professional career and focuses solely on about six hours that she spent before this committee on Jan. 28," Hatch said.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) joined Hatch in siding with all nine Democrats on the committee.
"To those who really believe this is a constitutional overreach of historic proportions, you have impeachment available to you," Graham said, referring to the immigration controversy.
Noting the near-constant complaints among Republicans on the committee about the current attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., Graham said wryly that "Eric Holder's ready to go, and I wish him well. He's about to make a lot of money. Republicans are into that."
Conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) say Lynch would not be independent of President Obama on immigration and other issues and would not depart from Holder's policies.
Cruz, a potential candidate for president, said Lynch had refused to answer crucial questions in her confirmation hearing.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has led opposition to Obama's immigration plans, denounced Lynch.
"The Senate cannot confirm someone to this post who is going to support and advance a scheme that violates our Constitution and eviscerates congressional authority," Sessions said. "Congress makes the laws, not the president—as every schoolchild knows."
Lynch has twice been U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, the top federal prosecutor in a district that includes all of Long Island and most of New York City outside of Manhattan and the Bronx.
She has been a federal prosecutor much of her career and earned the endorsement of a number of top law enforcement officials and organizations. She has extensive experience in terrorism and public corruption cases.
Lynch also has international experience, volunteering over several years with the International Criminal Tribune for Rwanda training lawyers and conducting an investigation.