By Tim Devaney and Peter Sullivan - 01/28/15 08:48 PM EST
Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch impressed during her debut before Congress Wednesday, turning in a performance that likely improved her chances of a smooth path to confirmation.
A marathon hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee stood in stark contrast with often-acrimonious showdowns between lawmakers and the man Lynch is hoping to succeed, Attorney General Eric Holder.
Hours of questioning featured jokes, small talk and other light moments between the veteran New York prosecutor and members of both parties.
“As far as I know, Ms. Lynch has nothing to do with the Justice Department problems, but as the new attorney general, she can fix them,” said Grassley (R-Iowa).
Later, before adjourning for lunch, he turned back to Lynch.
“It’s going OK for you?” he asked.
“Yes, and thank you for inquiring, Mr. Chairman,” she responded.
To be sure, the warm reception could eventually turn frosty. Attorneys general, who must act as a presidential administration’s top law enforcement officer, often end up lightning rods for controversy.
But Lynch sought to balance her support for President Obama’s policies with pledges to institute reforms at an agency that has been in GOP crosshairs for years.
“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress — a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” she said.
The sharpest questions from Republicans centered on president Obama’s executive actions that shield millions of people in the country illegally from deportation.
Lynch defended the actions.
Speaking of the Office of Legal Counsel memo laying out the legal justification for the action, Lynch said, “I don’t see any reason to doubt the reasonableness of those views.”
She echoed the administration’s argument that the Department of Homeland Security is not able to deport all of the people living in the country illegally, so it should prioritize categories like criminals and remove the threat of deportation from others.
That justification “seemed to be a reasonable way to marshal limited resources,” Lynch said.
The line of questioning drew some strong language from Republicans who have criticized the immigration directive as unconstitutional overreach.
“It goes way beyond prosecutorial discretion,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “You’ve gone far beyond that; you’ve actually created a new system of law.”
But while critical of the policy, lawmakers remained cordial to Lynch, even helping her to distance herself from the DOJ’s current leadership.
“You’re not Eric Holder, are you?” asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“No I’m not, sir,” Lynch replied, to some laughter.
The light mood bodes well for Lynch, who has twice been unanimously confirmed by the Senate and seems well on her way to the high-ranking Cabinet post.
At one point, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), standing in for Cornyn during a series of votes, turned the confirmation hearing into an open mic event with several comedic lines.
“She has earned a reputation for keeping her head down and avoiding the spotlight — just like me,” joked the outspoken Schumer, who is seldom far from a TV camera.
The jovial atmosphere rubbed off on other senators and eventually Lynch, who later made light of the bitter partisanship that consumed Washington in the last election cycle.
“Senator, it’s been a privilege to watch the peaceful transfer of power [from Democrats to Republicans],” she quipped.
Lynch, meanwhile, said she would remain above the fray of politics.
“That would be a totally inappropriate use of the position of attorney general,” Lynch responded when asked if the attorney general should be a political arm of the White House.
“I have to be willing to tell not just my friends and acquaintances but colleagues ‘no’ if the law requires it,” she added.
While Lynch sought to avoid definitive statements in many instances, she was clear about waterboarding.
“Waterboarding is torture, senator,” Lynch responded to questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
“And thus illegal?” Leahy said.
“And thus illegal,” Lynch replied.
She said the current National Security Agency surveillance program, which has been controversial with some members of both parties, is “certainly constitutional and effective.”
One contentious issue under Holder was his effort to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in a civilian court. Holder abandoned that push under pressure, and the case was transferred to a military commission.
Lynch kept both the civilian and military options open for a case-by-case consideration, calling for “utilizing all of the tools in our arsenal, and that includes the military commission process.”
Her main split from Obama was on the issue of marijuana. She said definitively that she does not support legalization and appeared to take a tougher stand than the president on enforcement.
Sessions quoted Obama saying, “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol.”
“Well, senator I certainly don’t hold that view and don’t agree with that view of marijuana,” Lynch responded. “I certainly think that the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion, neither of which I’m able to share, but I can tell you that … I not only do no support legalization, it’s not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization.”
That position might play well among the panel’s Republican members. But judging from their demeanor on Wednesday, she appears to have little to worry about on that front.
Indeed, at times, it appeared that the lawmakers were more worried about her.
“How are you holding up?” Cornyn inquired of Lynch before beginning his questions around 5 p.m.
“I’m fine, sir,” she answered.