WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Senate Republicans demanded wholesale change at the Justice Department Thursday as they questioned whether President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, would provide it.
“The question for me and a lot of members on this side is whether Ms. Lynch is committed to leading the Department of Justice in a new direction,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said as he gaveled open the second day of hearings into her nomination.
“She’s clearly a skilled and competent lawyer,” Grassley said, while complaining that Lynch’s answers during day-long testimony Wednesday were “indirect.” Grassley said he would be following up with more questions in writing.
Lynch was not scheduled to appear for the second and final day of her confirmation hearing, which was designed instead was to feature testimony from outside witnesses, several of whom were summoned by Republicans to amplify their criticism of Obama and his current attorney general, Eric Holder. Republicans deride Holder as a liberal firebrand and Obama cheerleader who has failed to cooperate with Congress.
Witnesses set to testify Thursday included attorney Jonathan Turley, who has charged the Obama administration engages in executive overreach, and Catherine Engelbrecht, who says she was targeted by the Internal Revenue Service for leading a conservative group.
Democrats on the committee took issue with the GOP focus on Obama and Holder.
“Barack Obama is not the nominee. That may come as a surprise to some who heard the questions. Eric Holder is not the nominee,” Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, top Democrat on the committee, said Thursday.
In her appearance Wednesday, Lynch pledged independence from Obama and promised to work with the Republican-led Congress.
“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.
She offered support for some controversial Obama administration policies, including the president’s unilateral protections for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
In his opening remarks, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Lynch is the one seeking confirmation, not the president’s immigration policies.
Lynch also suggested she would provide a departure from Holder.
“If confirmed as attorney general, I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch,” she said, when asked how senators could be assured that she would lead differently.
Facing skeptical but largely cordial Republicans, Lynch dispatched questions on topics including terrorism, drugs and surveillance. Even the occasional confrontational exchange over immigration, an issue some Republican lawmakers seized on as a litmus test, appeared unlikely to derail Lynch’s chances of confirmation.
If approved by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate, Lynch, the top federal prosecutor since 2010 for parts of New York City and Long Island, would become the nation’s first black female attorney general.
“You’ve acquitted yourself very well,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after challenging Lynch on national security.
Other Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and David Vitter of Louisiana, were more openly critical and signaled opposition to Lynch’s nomination. Vitter has already said he’ll oppose her.
“Try as I might, there has been nothing I have been able to ask you that has yielded any answer suggesting any limitations whatsoever on the authority of the president,” Cruz said. Lynch disagreed with that characterization, saying the American people, and not the president, would be “my client and my first thought.”
A focus of Wednesday’s session was the administration’s new policy granting work permits and temporary deportation relief to some 4 million people who are in the country illegally. Grassley called it “a dangerous abuse of executive authority.”
Lynch said she had no involvement in drafting the measures but called them “a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem” of illegal immigration.
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