The Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch continues with witnesses Thursday. No need to wait for the wrap-up, though; here are five takeaways from the hearing’s crucial first day.
Loretta Lynch will be confirmed, but the days of congressional deference are over.
There’s no doubt the Senate will confirm Lynch, even though Republicans have a 54-seat majority. Nothing came up in the hearing to call her prospects into question. Unlike, say, former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s stumbles during his confirmation hearing for defense secretary, Lynch proved a polished performer and won some explicit GOP praise.
Even the most qualified candidate, though, will encounter naysayers. In 1993, Janet Reno strolled into the attorney general’s office by 93-0 vote. Those halcyon days are gone. The last four attorney general nominees have been opposed by 42, 36, 40 and 21 senators, respectively. Whether it’s to send the White House a signal or to cultivate an unforgiving conservative base, some Republicans will find cause to vote “no.” Keep this threshold in mind: 21 Senate Republicans voted against Lynch’s predecessor, Eric Holder.
Lynch is steady under pressure.
Sitting for hours on end, facing at times senators who may hope to trip her up, Lynch kept cool throughout. She spoke lucidly in complete sentences, complete paragraphs and with full command of the facts. She even flashed a little humanizing humor, as when she said of her husband, Stephen Hargrove, that he “has supported me in all of my endeavors, no matter how poor they make us.”
Whether it was repeatedly soothing senators that she would “look forward to working” with them, or elegantly referring to the “corpus of your question,” Lynch provided a master class in confirmation hearing politics.
“You’re just knocking them out of the park,” an enthusiastic Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said accurately.
Immigration is hot.
Unsurprisingly, Lynch endorsed the legal reasoning used by the Obama administration to support the deferred deportation program that will allow millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. She termed the Justice Department’s legal analysis supporting the program “very reasonable,” though she declined Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s politically loaded invitation to explicitly say whether she agreed with the analysis.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama called Lynch’s assessment “very troubling,” foreshadowing the explanations likely to be offered by those GOP senators who end up voting against her.
Similar immigration questions recurred over and over throughout the hearing, far outpacing in frequency other potential hot-button issues, including Wall Street fraud, cyber crime, military commissions, Guantanamo Bay or electronic surveillance.
Some senators are better questioners than others.
A former trial attorney and longtime military judge advocate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., showed again his skills at eliciting answers. He remains civil, identifies key issues, gets right to the point and has a knack for securing useful responses.
While some other Republicans engaged Lynch in broad discussions about concepts like prosecutorial discretion, it was Graham who got Lynch to characterize the death penalty as an “effective” punishment. It was also Graham who zeroed in on the budding controversy over marijuana legalization, as he won from Lynch an acknowledgment that “it’s still the policy” of the Obama administration to enforce federal marijuana laws.
Tellingly, Graham managed to squeeze in some two dozen questions during his initial 10-minute round, most of them substantive. Other senators used their time differently. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas only got off about seven questions in between his own comments, including asking Lynch to affirm that she was “not Eric Holder.” On a later round, Cornyn drilled in with more specifics.
There’s been a lot going on behind the scenes.
Long before the Judiciary Committee hearing got underway shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday, considerable action already had occurred behind the scenes. One hint of this quiet campaign was offered by, of all people, Sen. Cruz.
“A number of my friends and colleagues who practice law in New York have reached out to me with words of praise for you, describing your tenure as U.S. attorney there as that of a no-nonsense prosecutor and as a U.S. attorney who honored and respected the law,” Cruz told Lynch.
The bank-shot outreach to Cruz, though it might not score, nonetheless reflected one facet of the Obama administration’s efforts on Lynch’s behalf. Another, common to all major confirmation battles, involved Lynch’s private one-on-one meetings with senators before the hearing.
“This is David Perdue from Georgia,” one freshman Republican senator told Lynch as his turn came to question the nominee. “We met the other day.”