The hot lights of an attorney general nomination hearing gave Republicans a chance to unload on the White House in front of the TV cameras Wednesday on grievances ranging from immigration to marijuana policy.
The questions for nominee Loretta Lynch often said more about the interrogator than they did about Lynch.
At least that was what Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Judiciary Committee believed about Republicans.
“I know you’re going to be asked a lot about immigration,” Leahy said to Lynch. “It makes me think we should be focusing on your qualifications for this job. Asking those questions might even speak to the qualifications of the Congress," he said, in an allusion to Congress' failure to address the issue.
Republicans, including Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, probed her views of the legal underpinnings — or lack thereof — of granting temporary executive amnesty and work permits to as many as 5 million people.
Vitter pressed Lynch on whether Obama’s deferred action program goes beyond merely setting priorities for prosecuting on a "case-by-case basis" as described in immigration law.
“His action goes well beyond setting prosecutorial priorities, doesn’t it?” Vitter asked. “Apart from that, he goes further in granting this broad category of folks a certain status for three years at a time and he takes another affirmative step in giving them a work permit.”
Lynch said she thought the opinion provided a “reasonable” legal framework for the program, but wouldn’t go beyond that.
An annoyed Vitter, who is running for governor, called the program “a clear, obvious” stretch of the law.
Her reticence also raised the hackles of Cruz, a possible presidential candidate who sought to get her answer to whether she would have issued a similar legal opinion as that authored by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel justifying the action.
Lynch deflected, saying she couldn’t answer because she hadn’t seen all of the legal documents used to develop the opinion.
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
But she noted the DOJ did reject some actions President Barack Obama wants to take.
“I do believe that the Office of Legal Counsel has the important obligation to look at the law, look at the facts, look at the action that is being brought before it, and say where there is an appropriate legal framework and where there is not,” she said.
Cruz called her a “very talented lawyer, so I suspect it is not an accident that twice you have not answered that question.”
Afterward, Cruz called Lynch's views "dangerous."
"She has now explicitly embraced the president's unconstitutional action, has pledged to help him implement that unconstitutional action and indeed ... she refused to delineate any limits whatsoever on the president's authority," Cruz told CQ Roll Call. "She could not give any instance of a limit on the president's authority. That is profoundly dangerous to have an attorney general, who by her own testimony is prepared to rubber stamp unconstitutional conduct by the president."
Cruz left the ball in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's court on whether to even call Lynch's nomination up for a vote on the Senate floor, should the nomination be reported out of the Judiciary Committee, as expected.
"That is the decision the majority leader is going to have to make. I believe we should use every constitutional tool available to stop the president's unconstitutional executive action. That's what Republicans, Republican candidates all over the country said over and over again last year," Cruz said.
Sessions, who is chairman of the immigration subcommittee, also probed for a “gotcha” moment by asking if the department would prosecute an employer for denying employment to an immigrant participating in the president’s deferred action program.
Lynch demurred. “I haven’t studied that legal issue,” she replied.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the nomination strategy for Lynch, called into question the GOP claim that prosecutorial discretion entails a refusal to enforce the law.
Schumer said Congress only allocates enough money for the Department of Homeland Security to deport 400,000 immigrants out of an estimated 11 million here illegally.
“Obviously you have to make some choices here,” Schumer said. “We want our prosecutors to go after the highest level crimes if they don’t have the resources to do all of them.”
Lynch also faced tough questions on marijuana.
When asked about the issue, Lynch said she does not support legalization and broke from the president's own views.
Sessions quoted from Obama’s New Yorker interview where he said he doesn’t believe pot is more dangerous than alcohol.
“I ... don’t agree with that view of marijuana,” Lynch said. “I certainly think that the president was speaking from personal experience and personal opinion neither of which I am able to share. Not only do I not support the legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently to support the legalization, nor would it be the position should I become the attorney general.”
Sessions applauded her response and urged her to speak out.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is also mulling a presidential bid, spoke out against legalizing marijuana and sought Lynch’s opinion on gay marriage and abortion.
He raised concerns about Lynch signing an amicus brief in support of a Planned Parenthood lawsuit opposing a “partial-birth” abortion ban.
On marriage, he asked what is the constitutional difference between gay marriage and polygamy. Without missing a beat, Lynch declined to answer, saying she hasn’t been involved in the relevant cases to provide an analysis.
As for Lynch, her nomination rests with top Senate Republicans.
With senators such as Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas asking her explicitly whether she will be like current Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has a terrible relationship with the GOP (she said she will be Loretta Lynch) — Lynch has a trump card.
If they don't confirm her, they get two more years of him.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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