"You're not Eric Holder, are you?"
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That question, posed to Loretta Lynch nearly two hours into her confirmation hearing to be the next attorney general, seemed to encapsulate what every Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee was likely thinking.
"No, I'm not," Lynch assured Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with a wry smile. "I will be myself. I will be Loretta Lynch [if confirmed.]"
Cornyn said Holder's record has weighed "heavily" on some of his fellow senators' minds, insisting Holder was "openly contentious" toward Republican lawmakers, "stonewalled legitimate" oversight investigations, and "harassed" states that passed laws requiring certain forms of identification for voters to cast ballots in elections.
At the opening of the hearing, committee chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hoped Lynch “has what it takes” to “fix” President Obama’s Justice Department.
Republicans took sharp aim at the Obama administration’s plan to bring sweeping changes to the immigration system, using executive action to offer temporary legal status to nearly five million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Some of the most contentious moments of the hearing focused on whether Lynch believed undocumented immigrants inside the United States have a right to work. Lynch at first didn’t offer a clear response, but by the end of the hearing she insisted: “There is no right to work for an undocumented immigrant."
Still, many Republicans on the Senate committee said the planned executive action would afford undocumented immigrations such a right, and they derided the move as a deliberate violation of the U.S. constitution.
Lynch rebuffed Republican suggestions that the executive action amounted to a refusal to enforce the law, saying it was instead an attempt to set priorities.
She echoed the Obama administration in suggesting the point of the executive action was to “prioritize” deportations of the “most dangerous” people, namely criminals, terrorists and other violent offenders. And she called it all a “reasonable way to marshal limited resources.”
She said she has not seen regulations laying out exactly how the Department of Homeland Security will enact the new action, but she said she has reviewed an opinion from the Department of Justice assessing the president’s legal authority to take such action.
And, she said, the assessment seemed reasonable and leads her to believe the administration’s executive action is legal. She noted, however, the department did conclude in some instances that certain administration proposals were not allowed under the law.
Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions over whether undocumented immigrants have a right to citizenship, Lynch called citizenship a “right” for those born in the United States and “a privilege” for others. Sessions agreed.
But when asked by Sessions whether she as attorney general would take legal action against any employers who preferred to hire undocumented immigrants over U.S. citizens, Lynch called it an “important point” that should be reviewed.
On the immigration issue, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., strongly defended the Obama administration, saying it’s a “myth” that prioritizing law enforcement resources -– known as “prosecutorial discretion” -– amounts to a failure to enforce laws.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and Congress “only allocates” enough resources for Homeland Security to deport 400,000 of them, so suggesting that the Obama administration is willfully skirting the law is “absurd,” Schumer said.
“Obviously you have to make some choices here,” Schumer said. “This idea of going after higher-level dangerous crimes first is how law enforcement has gone on for hundreds of years, and should.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took strong issue with Republicans’ criticism of Holder, saying Holder had no opportunity to defend himself at the hearing and insisting their claims “would not withstand” further scrutiny.
It’s “easy to ... blame him” and history will show that Holder “actually brought the department back from a place where it had sadly been politicized” under the Bush administration, Whitehouse said.
Over and over, Lynch vowed to be an “independent and objective” attorney general, pointing to her long record as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
And, she pledged, when she and lawmakers inevitably disagree on an issue, she will hear their concerns and “be open to discussion.”
She said it was important “to work with people who might disagree."