NEW YORK – The Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, nominated by President Obama to replace Eric Holder as head of the Justice Department, got off to a contentious start as the panel’s chairman asked whether she believes Obama’s executive action on amnesty were within his constitutional authority.
Responding to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Lynch launched into what appeared to be a prepared answer, reciting her agreement with President Obama’s speech to the nation Nov. 21 in which he spelled out his plan for deferred prosecution for up to 5 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. who are parents of U.S. citizen or legal-resident children.
Lynch argued limited resources force the president and Department of Justice to prosecute only the most severe criminals, the “most dangerous offenders that rightfully stand at the top of the deportation list,” rather than the majority of illegal immigrants, who pose no threat to law enforcement.
Grassley then asked: “How can President Obama conclude there is ‘no smidgen of corruption’ in the IRS discriminating against conservative groups applying for tax-favored status when the investigation is not yet complete? When is it ever appropriate for any president to comment on an investigation that is yet ongoing?”
Again, Lynch gave a carefully rehearsed response, stating that comments on ongoing investigations could be inappropriate, while refusing to directly criticize Obama.
In response to a softball question by ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Lynch asserted her commitment to making sure law enforcement is responsive to community needs, carefully sidestepping any comment on whether police acted in a racist manner in shootings such as the Michael Brown case in St. Louis that have prompted national protests.
“I think we need to provide law enforcement through the nation with the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and in response to community needs,” Lynch said.
From the start of the confirmation hearing, Republican majority members appeared determined to get Lynch on the record regarding issues Holder made controversial as DOJ director. But they stopped short of contentious questioning that would signal her nomination is at risk of not being confirmed.
“My view is that terrorists will face American justice here and abroad,” she answered in response to a question by Leahy, carefully avoiding taking the position that terrorism is a crime within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, as liberal Democrats have frequently argued since the Clinton administration, rather than an act of war addressed by the U.S. military.
The first contentious exchange occurred when Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., asked whether Lynch thought immigrants entering the U.S. illegally had a right to claim U.S. citizenship under equal protection laws, claiming citizenship was their “civil right.”
“I believe the right and obligation to work is a right of everyone who comes here regardless of status,” she answered, “and I would prefer people to be in the workforce than not.”
Sessions pressed: “Does an illegal immigrant have a right to demand a job? Do you think a person here illegally has a right to work in the United States when the law says it’s illegal to hire someone who is here illegally?”
“We want everyone in the United States to be able to seek employment,” she answered, sidestepping a direct answer.
Sessions asked further: “If a person comes here illegally and has a right to get a Social Security card and a work authorization, is an employer still free to give preference to hiring someone who is here legally? Would you take action against an employer who did not hire someone given a work permit under the president’s executive actions?”
“I would look forward to speaking with you and working with you as we try to address this point in the future,” she said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., then began his allotted time by commenting that Lynch was “knocking them out of the park” in her answers, demonstrating, he said, why she was clearly so eminently qualified to direct the Department of Justice.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, used his time to criticize Eric Holder for claiming he was President Obama’s “wingman,” whose job was to enforce laws politically, politicizing issues like the war on terror and not investigating rigorously legitimate scandals, including the IRS political application of tax-favored rules and regulations.
“How do we know you will be different from Eric Holder?” Cornyn asked.
Lynch assured Cornyn she would be her own person and would seek impartial DOJ enforcements of the laws of the United States.
When the hearing resumed after the midday recess, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., began his questioning by asking Lynch, “How was lunch?”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., pressed Lynch to answer whether Obama’s executive actions on amnesty went beyond prosecutorial discretion. The plan, he argued, allows an illegal immigrant not only to remain the U.S for a period of time without fear of deportation, it also confers a new immigration status by granting a Social Security number and a work authorization permit.
Lynch could not cite for Vitter a federal statute that allowed the Department of Homeland Security to award Social Security numbers and work authorities.
“I’m not satisfied with your answer that DHS has to proceed on a case-by-case basis,” Vitter said, noting that her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was not the first time he had been frustrated trying to get a direct answer from her.