The Senate’s top Republicans said this weekend that confirming President Obama’s late-season attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, should be put off until next year when Republicans have control of the chamber, setting up the first lame-duck power struggle with a politically damaged president.
Mr. Obama had put off an attorney general fight until after the election for fear of having it become a troublesome flashpoint for fellow Democrats on the ballot, but with that behind him, and facing a GOP that would control all of the hearings starting next year, the president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are trying to speed Ms. Lynch through this year.
Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and his top lieutenants have told them to slow it down, promising a fair set of hearings but demanding the time to properly examine her record.
“Ms. Lynch will receive fair consideration by the Senate. And her nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement after the president’s rare Saturday personnel announcement, made at the White House just hours before Mr. Obama left for a weeklong trip to Asia.
No specific major objections have yet been raised over Ms. Lynch, a Harvard-trained lawyer, who now serves as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She held that job in the Clinton administration as well.
“It’s pretty hard to be more qualified for this job than Loretta,” Mr. Obama said as he introduced her at the White House on Saturday. “She has spent years in the trenches as a prosecutor, aggressively fighting terrorism, financial fraud, cybercrime, all while vigorously defending civil rights.”
Not all lawmakers agree.
Some Republican senators said it was unusual to elevate someone from a U.S. attorney’s position to the top post in the Justice Department. Current Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was the deputy attorney general under President Clinton before Mr. Obama tapped him to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer in 2009.
Congress returns this week after more than three months of vacation and campaigning back home, save for a brief spurt of legislating in mid-September.
Awaiting lawmakers are bills to keep the government funded for fiscal year 2015, expired tax cuts that most lawmakers want to renew, the annual defense policy bill and now, thanks to Mr. Obama’s move late last week, a request for billions of dollars to fund a new surge of U.S. troops the president has ordered deployed to Iraq.
If Democrats wanted to, they could probably force Ms. Lynch through. Thanks to Democrats’ use of the so-called “nuclear option” to change the chamber’s rules last year, overcoming a filibuster takes just a majority vote — and there are 55 members of the Democratic caucus, including a number who are retiring or who lost their seats and won’t ever have to face voters again.
But Republicans said that would be a bad first step for Democrats who are about to end up in the minority in the Senate for the first time in eight years.
“If we’re going to have an era of good faith here, we need to begin with the confirmation process for one of the most important jobs in the country, and that’s attorney general,” Sen.-elect Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, told “Fox News Sunday.”
Republicans have already detailed a series of tough questions Ms. Lynch would have to answer, including her legal reading of the laws governing the president’s executive powers and immigration. It could be one of several flashpoints for Mr. Obama’s immigration move, in which activists expect he will grant tentative legal status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
That’s not to mention all of the other cleanup chores she will have to perform in Mr. Holder’s wake as he still battles Congress over the pace of his investigation into the Internal Revenue Service targeting of the tea party, his handling of the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation and his treatment of race-related criminal cases. The Republican-controlled House has even held Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents.
Many in the GOP have called for Mr. Holder’s ouster over any combination of those issues — which is ironic given some Republicans’ current stance that he should stay on just a little longer.
“Eric Holder has said he’s not going anywhere soon. So it’s not like the position isn’t going to be filled,” Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program this weekend. “It’s an important position. It’s one that needs to be filled. And we will give the president’s nominee every consideration, but would like to do that, consider that, next year when the new Congress is seated.”
Ms. Lynch has twice been confirmed by the Senate to her U.S. attorney’s post — most recently in 2010.
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on her nomination, said in a Washington Times op-ed that “it has been nearly five years since Ms. Lynch’s confirmation as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and she is not well known in Washington.”
Mr. Hatch pointed to the precedent set after the 2004 election, when President George W. Bush nominated a new attorney general in November, but hearings weren’t held until January.
And two of the Senate’s leading conservative voices warned Mr. Obama explicitly over the weekend against trying to hustle Ms. Lynch’s nomination through the existing Congress in the days ahead.
Mr. Obama’s nominee “deserves fair and full consideration of the U.S. Senate, which is precisely why she should not be confirmed in the lame-duck session of Congress by senators who just lost their seats and are no longer accountable to the voters,” wrote Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah in a joint statement Saturday.