Loretta Lynch won confirmation as the new attorney general Thursday, surviving a deeply partisan vote that reflected Republicans’ anger at President Obama more than worry over Ms. Lynch, who will be the first black woman to hold the top law enforcement post.
She will replace Eric H. Holder Jr., who had a historic but rocky six years as Mr. Obama’s first attorney general, and Ms. Lynch will be charged with continuing the defense of the White House’s executive actions that have sparked repeated legal battles with Congress and the states.
“America will be better off,” Mr. Obama said in a statement after the confirmation vote, saying her role in picking judicial nominees, enforcing voting rights laws and pursuing counterterrorism cases means she’ll touch the lives of all Americans. “Loretta’s confirmation ensures that we are better positioned to keep our communities safe, keep our nation secure and ensure that every American experiences justice under the law.”
Black female House members packed the back of the Senate chamber to observe the history-making vote, and greeted Ms. Lynch’s Democratic supporters in the Senate with hugs and cheers.
Ms. Lynch cleared the Senate on a 56-43 vote, with all of the opposition coming from Republicans, who said they hope she proves their fears wrong.
“I hope she can recover from her testimony, where she seemed to embrace the president’s illegal executive action [on immigration] without regard to the fact that it is a constitutional overreach,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who voted against Ms. Lynch.
Mr. Obama had nominated Ms. Lynch in the wake of last year’s elections, hoping for quick action. But Democrats, who controlled the Senate during the lame-duck session of Congress, put off action on her, believing she would easily clear when the GOP took control in January.
Instead she languished as both sides clashed over abortion-funding provisions in an anti-human trafficking bill. An agreement this week finally cleared that snag, setting up the final Lynch vote.
Democrats called the delays a black mark for Republicans, whom they accused of thwarting civil rights history.
“At long last this embarrassment for the Senate is over, and this triumph for the American people will occur,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Ten Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted to confirm Ms. Lynch, with many of them saying they believed she would be better than Mr. Holder.
But others said that wasn’t enough.
“Ms. Lynch has demonstrated tremendous intellect, a willingness to be a strong federal prosecutor and a proven record of commitment to public service, but her confirmation to be our nation’s top law enforcement officer does not exist in a vacuum,” said Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, the chamber’s only black Republican. “At the end of the day, Ms. Lynch demonstrated that she will not be the independent voice that our country needs.”
Ms. Lynch grew up in a North Carolina still struggling with civil rights issues, including at her high school, where she was the school’s valedictorian — but officials, wary of having a lone black honoree, decided she needed to share the top billing with two other students.
She graduated from Harvard College and got her law degree from Harvard Law School, and has twice served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York — first under President Clinton and beginning again under Mr. Obama.
None of her opponents questioned her qualifications, and she has headed some of the Justice Department’s highest-profile cases, including terrorism prosecutions and the case against former Rep. Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who resigned his seat and pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion.
The opposition to Ms. Lynch instead flowed almost entirely due to her boss, Mr. Obama, and his efforts to test the limits of executive power, drawing fierce pushback from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who accused him of ignoring the Constitution.
At her confirmation hearing Ms. Lynch defended the Justice Department’s legal reasoning underpinning Mr. Obama’s deportation amnesty programs and refused to second-guess the president on a series of other actions.
Republicans also demanded to know how Ms. Lynch would be different from Mr. Holder, who has repeatedly clashed with the GOP, accused Mr. Obama’s opponents of being motivated by race and withheld documents from Congress — resulting in him being the first attorney general in history to be held in contempt of Congress.
At her confirmation hearing and in written responses to follow-up questions, Ms. Lynch insisted she would be different from Mr. Holder, though the only area she specifically identified where she might draw distinctions was on her willingness to be transparent.
Ms. Lynch also couldn’t think of any areas where she had made mistakes other than on cybersecurity, where she said she’s done a great job but wished she’s gotten on top of the issue even earlier.
Democrats said opposing Ms. Lynch because she defended the president was a troubling precedent to set.
“This defies common sense,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat. “You must vote against a nominee for the Cabinet of the duly elected president of the United States because she agrees with the duly elected president of the United States? Think of the consequences of that vote. Think what that means to the future of advise and consent in the Senate.”
But Republicans said her agreement with Mr. Obama went beyond normal bounds and suggested she would not be the independent officer they insisted the attorney general needs to be.
They contrasted her with Sally Quillian Yates, whom Mr. Obama nominated to be deputy attorney general and who cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 18-2 vote Thursday morning just minutes before the filibuster vote on Ms. Lynch.
Ms. Yates, who is white, is a prosecutor in Georgia, and had strong support of that state’s two Republican senators, which helped her nomination.
During her confirmation hearings she generally defended the president’s policies but did say she viewed the role of the Justice Department as being an independent constitutional authority whose clients are the American people, not the president or Congress.
“This may seem to some like a small point, but it’s important to me,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the committee, who helped shepherd Ms. Yates’ nomination through the panel, but who opposed Ms. Lynch.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is running for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, missed the vote. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, two other announced candidates, both voted against her.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has said he is pondering a White House bid, voted for Ms. Lynch.
“The best thing for the country is to have a new attorney general and close the book on Eric Holder,” Mr. Graham said, adding that he also believed presidents deserved “latitude” in picking their own Cabinet team.