5 things to watch at AG nominee’s hearing

5 things to watch at AG nominee’s hearing
© Francis Rivera

By all accounts, Loretta Lynch is likely to win confirmation as the next U.S. attorney general. But there are still plenty of reasons to watch her confirmation hearing, which kicks off on Wednesday.

Lynch has won praise for her quiet efficiency from her colleagues within the Justice Department, and many Republican senators said as they headed into Wednesday’s hearing that they had been impressed in private meetings and conversations.

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But Lynch has also maintained a relatively low profile — especially considering her two stints as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York — and she remains an unknown quantity to much of the U.S.

Meanwhile, current Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderBiden under pressure to pick new breed of federal prosecutors Obama says Senate will vote again on voting rights Obama: Voting rights bill must pass before next election MORE has proven how polarizing the job can be. For Republicans, there is little downside in turning a spotlight onto some of Holder’s most controversial positions and forcing Lynch to weigh in.

Here are five things to watch for as Lynch is peppered with questions from the Senate’s Judiciary Committee:

IMMIGRATION

Republican lawmakers will be pushing Lynch hard on President Obama’s immigration executive action, which offers benefits to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants. 

“I think he’s way out of line doing what he’s doing on immigration,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Tuesday. “He admitted that himself.”

Some on the Judiciary panel have already said they’ll vote against Lynch to protest the president’s move, and she’ll have little room for error under the barrage of questions on the subject.

“PHONY” SCANDALS

President Obama has dismissed Republican outrage over a series of missteps as “phony” and political. But the GOP is eager to use the hearing to highlight familiar hobbyhorses like the Fast and Furious program, political targeting at the IRS, and the Justice Department’s monitoring of reporters.

Senators will hear from witnesses who have been highly critical of how Holder has handled these issues, and Lynch is certain to field questions designed to provoke an angry or damaging response.

RACE

Lynch was thrust into the swirling controversy over police tactics and racial profiling, when her office was ordered to open a civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after a police officer placed him into a chokehold.

She’s likely to sidestep questions on the Garner case specifically, since the investigation is ongoing. But she has previously described some of the problems prosecutors face when trying to target police misconduct and must navigate a political minefield when lawmakers question her about the subject this week.

DRUG POLICY

The Justice Department has moved aggressively in recent years to reform its drug policies, issuing new charging guidelines designed to prevent drug offenders from facing harsh mandatory minimums.

Holder, who has described drug policy as a legacy issue, did not intervene when Colorado and Washington state moved to legalize marijuana. He also jump-started an initiative aimed at identifying nonviolent drug offenders in prison who could be considered for clemency.

Lynch said in a 2001 interview that there “were a lot of issues that went on with the war on drugs” and that penalties on crack cocaine “had a huge collateral consequence in the minority community.” Senators on both sides of the aisle will be watching her statements closely.

TIMING

Earlier this month, the White House demanded that Lynch receive a final confirmation vote before senators left for their mid-February recess. 

Congressional aides say that, because of timing and procedural quirks, it’s unlikely the Judiciary Committee would vote before the end of February. The process could be delayed further if lawmakers aren’t satisfied that Lynch has answered questions completely. 

Before the White House lodged their complaint, it had appeared that Lynch’s confirmation was traveling smoothly. But if Wednesday’s hearing turns testy, it could be a while before Lynch receives her up-or-down vote. 

— Tim Devaney contributed.