If the Senate GOP leadership permits Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) to turn the Lynch Attorney General confirmation hearing into a proxy fight over the President’s authority to make the immigration system work better until Congress passes an overhaul of the dysfunctional law, it’ll be proof positive that the GOP has been gaming the country on immigration reform the whole time, that they never intended to do anything other than implement the nativists’ mean spirited call for “self deportation.”
By Seung Min Kim
Updated 11/11/14 5:58 AM EST
Senate Republicans plan to turn the battle over attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch into a larger debate over immigration, using the confirmation hearings as a proxy war over presidential power rather than a debate over Lynch’s qualifications.
Lynch, who would be the first black female attorney general, is considered a strong nominee, with a long record as a federal prosecutor. That makes the political fight over Barack Obama and his executive powers a much better bet for Republicans who took control of the Senate riding the president’s unpopularity.
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The Republicans’ early strategy, according to comments from senators and several Republican aides close to the Judiciary Committee, centers on whether the president has the authority to bypass Congress on immigration — allowing Republicans to write their own narrative on the nomination.
“The president is increasingly on a smaller and smaller island if he goes forward with this action and the next item of business is the nomination of the attorney general,” one Senate Republican aide said Monday. “Don’t underestimate the capacity for that to become a major battle front.”
Several GOP senators are publicly positioning themselves around an immigration fight.
Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah have signaled that immigration will be a large part of their line of questioning against Lynch when her confirmation process begins, which they said should happen after the new Republican majority is seated in January.
“The nominee must demonstrate full and complete commitment to the law,” Cruz and Lee said in a joint statement. “Loretta Lynch deserves the opportunity to demonstrate those qualities, beginning with a statement whether or not she believes the president’s executive amnesty plans are constitutional and legal.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the strategy.
But Hill Democrats say the Republican plan could backfire.
“I don’t think that issue should be central to Loretta Lynch’s confirmation,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Monday, adding that he said he wanted to see Lynch considered and confirmed “promptly.”
Since Attorney General Eric Holder said in September he planned to step down, a handful of other Senate Republicans have signaled the issue of executive action on immigration would be a central issue in confirming his successor. For example, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has, for weeks, been encouraging fellow senators to oppose any replacement for Holder who does not “firmly reject” Obama’s plan for executive action on immigration.
The chatter is preliminary — Congress is officially back in session Wednesday, and senators will have more time then to hash out a more formal strategy on Lynch’s nomination process. But key aides on Monday sketched out an initial strategy that centers on grilling Lynch — the federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of New York — over Obama’s pending immigration action and whether she backs it.
A slew of other hot-button issues are sure to surface during Lynch’s confirmation hearings, such as the Operation Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal, the contentious debate over voter ID laws and executive overreach, Republican aides added.
“Decisions and actions by President Obama and Attorney General Holder have made the proper bounds of executive power a critically important issue for this confirmation process,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Monday, signaling that will be a priority in deciding whether to confirm Lynch.
But the dominant issue will be immigration — and President Barack Obama’s looming executive action that could potentially halt deportations for millions of immigrants here without legal status. Obama has promised to keep his pledge to Latino and immigration advocates to act on deportations by the end of the year.
Senate Democrats don’t think the strategy will work.
“With Republicans on these issues, they always run the risk of overreach,” added a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “She’s not tied to the administration, she hasn’t had a tie to any of these past executive actions. … Efforts to tie her down to that stuff would come across as overly political.”
No decisions have been made on when the Senate will take up Lynch’s nomination to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official, officials said Monday. But one Democratic leadership aide said senators were leaning toward installing Lynch in the new Congress, when the GOP will be in control of the chamber.
Senate Democrats are banking on the view that the twice-confirmed Lynch, who would be the nation’s first black female attorney general with the Senate’s blessing, would be qualified enough to be confirmed under a Democratic- or GOP-led chamber.
“She should have no difficulty whatsoever on the merits,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Monday. “There is not a scintilla of factual basis to challenge her.”
The lame-duck session leaves an already truncated timeline to handle a high-profile nomination such as attorney general, and Congress is already buried under other must-do legislative priorities. The process to confirm Lynch has barely started on Capitol Hill — the Judiciary Committee has yet to receive Lynch’s paperwork, an aide said — and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has made National Security Agency reform his top priority in the lame-duck session.
Republicans prefer to leave the task of confirming Lynch to the new Congress. Presumptive incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that Lynch should be “considered in the new Congress through regular order.”
Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has pledged a “very fair, but thorough” vetting, noting that U.S. attorneys are “rarely” promoted straight to the attorney general spot.
“So I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress and how she proposes to lead the department,” he said.
In theory, the Senate could begin the nomination process in the lame-duck session under Leahy and continue in the new Congress under Grassley, Democratic aides said. When the Senate considered the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general in 2001, a handful of the hearings were held under Leahy and later under Hatch, who assumed the Judiciary chairmanship in late January 2001.
But that option doesn’t appear to be under serious consideration for now, and Republicans are sure to gain seats on the Judiciary Committee in the new Congress. If the process begin during the current Congress and continues into the next, new Republican members may not get the opportunity to question Lynch.
Still, other Senate Democrats want to clear her nomination quickly. In an interview Monday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said confirming Holder’s successor should be done as soon as possible, pointing to the continuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as one area that awaits the incoming attorney general.
“I believe we have an obligation to confirm the attorney general as quickly as we can,” McCaskill said. “I think we need to do our work, unless there’s a problem with this woman’s background.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.