WASHINGTON (AP) — Loretta Lynch won approval from a key Senate committee Thursday to serve as the nation's next attorney general, as divided Republicans clashed over her support for President Barack Obama's immigration policies.
The 12 to 8 vote in the Judiciary Committee sent Lynch's nomination to the full Senate. Three Republicans joined all committee Democrats in voting "yes."
"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," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as he criticized fellow Republicans for using Lynch's testimony in support of Obama's executive actions on immigration as a reason to oppose her nomination.
"I do not believe that is a proper way to evaluate any nominee's fitness for any position," Hatch said.
But GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas, among others, insisted that Lynch disqualified herself with her support for those directives and had not shown she would be sufficiently independent from Obama.
"The president's policy is to allow people unlawfully here to take jobs in America — a policy she has explicitly stated she intends to defend," said Sessions. "We should not confirm someone to that position who intends to continue that unlawful policy."
Despite the disagreement, Lynch is all but assured approval by the full Senate, under new rules that will require only a majority vote instead of the 60-vote margin required for most legislation. Timing for a floor vote is uncertain.
But unlike Obama's defense secretary nominee, Ash Carter, who was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 93-5 earlier this month, Lynch is unlikely to win approval by a resounding margin. As Thursday's debate illustrated, GOP opposition to Obama's immigration policies has become entwined in a variety of issues in the newly Republican-run Congress, and it has cut into Lynch's support at the same time it is holding up funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
Committee Democrats took turns denouncing their Republican colleagues for using the immigration issue as a reason to oppose Lynch, 55, who now serves as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She would replace Eric Holder and become the first black woman to hold the nation's top law enforcement job.
"Let me be crystal clear: The place for this battle is in the courts," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Political fights over immigration should not hold up Loretta Lynch, DHS funding or anything else."
A federal court last week put the policies on hold, a ruling the Obama administration is appealing. The directives extended work permits and deportation stays to millions in the country illegally.
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined Hatch in voting to support Lynch. Graham suggested other Republicans find another outlet for their opposition to Obama's immigration plans.
"To those who really believe this is a constitutional overreach of historic proportions you have impeachment available to you," Graham said.
Flake noted that he and others have been eager to say good-bye to Holder, a lightning rod for conservatives who butted heads repeatedly with Capitol Hill Republicans and was held in contempt of Congress.
"The longer this nomination is held up the longer the current attorney general in the Department of Justice stays in place," Flake said.
But Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said, "The answers Ms. Lynch gave in this hearing room, in my judgment, render her unsuitable for the position of chief law enforcement officer of the United States."
Cruz has pressured Republican leadership to hold up Lynch and other Obama nominees as a way to pressure the president over his immigration plans, but most other Republicans have shown little interest in participating in his approach.