Despite their questions about the Obama administration’s immigration policies and government overreach, Republican senators acknowledged Thursday that attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch is experienced and independent enough to lead the Justice Department and said she is likely to be confirmed.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said Ms. Lynch was “engaging and confident” during her testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“There’s no question about her competence, what she’s done as far as her legal background, and her work as U.S. attorney [in New York],” said Mr. Grassley, the committee’s chairman.
But the Republican-led committee also called a panel of witnesses — several of whom have ongoing lawsuits against the Justice Department — to testify about controversies and used the platform to further criticize Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
“The question for me and many people on this side is whether Ms. Lynch is qualified to lead the department in a different direction,” Mr. Grassley said, adding that Justice has “failed to fulfill the most basic aspects of its mission.”
The continued focus on Mr. Holder during what was supposed to be a confirmation hearing for Ms. Lynch brought swift criticism from Democrats.
“I regret that this solemn occasion has been turned into a sound bite factory for Fox News and conspiracy theorists everywhere,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.
If Republicans disagree with Mr. Holder, “the very best way to act on that would be to confirm Ms. Lynch as quickly as possible,” Mr. Whitehouse said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein criticized the political tone of the hearing.
“So much of this arena has become so partisan that the use of a hearing on the qualifications of a nominee to criticize the administration in areas that Loretta Lynch had nothing to do with, I guess that’s the coin of our realm here,” the California Democrat said.
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, called on his colleagues to confirm Ms. Lynch’s nomination, noting that she has been confirmed twice by the Senate in her role as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
“I am encouraged that Republican senators on the committee agree with me that the key question for voting for a nominee to be attorney general is independence — a trait that Ms. Lynch clearly has, and which her personal and professional associates have also praised,” Mr. Leahy said.
Though the nominee was not present on the second day of confirmation hearings, senators called up witnesses, legal experts and Ms. Lynch’s co-workers to offer testimony about her skills and qualifications.
Democrats picked witnesses who, in Mr. Leahy’s words, “actually knew Ms. Lynch.”
David Barlow, a former U.S. attorney who worked with Ms. Lynch on the Attorney General Advisory Committee, said she is “clearly tough but also fair and gracious.”
“She asked hard questions, but she did so in an unfailing, dignified way,” Mr. Barlow said.
The Rev. Clarence Newsome, a family friend, lauded Ms. Lynch for continuing the “discipline and courage that she displayed during her youth.”
“She is a public servant of the highest order an informed independent thinker who listens well and thinks hard,” he said.
Democrats have placed much focus on the background of Ms. Lynch, who grew up in North Carolina during a time of increased racial tensions as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and school librarian. Several senators told Ms. Lynch on Wednesday that her life is the “American story” or the “American dream.”
Republicans hoping to derail the nomination found little purchase in her record as U.S. attorney general in New York, where she has one of the highest prosecution records for terrorism cases in the country.
“She’s clearly a skilled and competent lawyer,” Mr. Grassley said.
One of his committee colleagues, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said although he believes Ms. Lynch is “not at fault” for the controversies surrounding Justice, the Senate will expect radical changes in how the department conducts business if she becomes its leader.
“The Justice Department is in dire need of new leadership,” Mr. Hatch said in a statement after the hearing. “I plan to support her nomination.”