WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., aggressively questioned attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch about her defense of the Obama administration’s controversial immigration policy in her confirmation hearing Wednesday.
“I have a huge concern regarding what I think is the president’s illegal, unconstitutional executive amnesty,” Vitter said to Lynch in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “and I have a huge concern that you think it is within the law.”
President Barack Obama announced in November that he would issue an executive order, without congressional approval, suspending immigration enforcement action against millions of undocumented immigrants — primarily parents and other relatives of U.S. residents brought to the country illegally as children. Vitter and other Republicans have strongly criticized the order for what they call amnesty as imperial overreach.
Lynch, the U.S. attorney for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in New York City and also for neighboring Long Island, said the legal opinions cited by the administration in support of the executive order were “reasonable.”
Obama has nominated Lynch to replace the departing Eric Holder. A vote for her in the committee will send her nomination to the full Senate, and its approval is required for her confirmation. Republicans hold a majority on both the committee and in the Senate.
Vitter has said he will vote against confirmation.
Vitter also questioned Lynch about the application of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, arguing that the way Lynch and other federal prosecutors handle the cases “is taking all meaning out of the word ‘mandatory’ — replacing your and your colleagues’ judgment for the judgment of the people who wrote the law.”
Lynch, 55, is expected to win the Senate’s approval without difficulty in the end, in part because Republicans are so eager to be rid of Holder. He has been a lightning rod for conservatives over the past six years, clashing continually with lawmakers and becoming the first sitting attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress.
“If confirmed as attorney general, I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch,” the nominee said.
“You’re not Eric Holder, are you?” Texas Republican John Cornyn, one of the current attorney general’s most persistent critics, asked at one point.
“No, I’m not, sir,” Lynch responded with a smile.
It was a moment that summed up a hearing that was often more about Obama and Holder than about Lynch, who if confirmed would become the nation’s first black female attorney general.
Holder, the first black attorney general, “operated as a politician using the awesome power conferred by our laws on the attorney general,” Cornyn said. Lynch asked the senator to take note of “the independence that I’ve always brought to every particular matter,” and she said that when merited she would say no to Obama.
The committee chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, called the president’s immigration order “a dangerous abuse of executive authority.”
Lynch said she had no involvement in drafting the measure but called it “a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem” of illegal immigration. She said the Homeland Security Department was focusing on removals of “the most dangerous of the undocumented immigrants among us.”
The hearing was the first such proceeding since Republicans took control of the Senate in January.
On another controversial topic, Lynch said that current National Security Agency intelligence-gathering programs are “constitutional and effective.” She said she hopes Congress will renew three expiring provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allow the FBI to obtain search warrants and communications intercepts in intelligence cases.
Lynch, who was born in North Carolina, was accompanied at the hearing by about 30 family members and friends. Her mother, a retired English teacher and librarian, was unable to make the trip, but her father, who is a retired minister, sat behind her throughout the hearing along with her husband, her brother and several members of her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, wearing their trademark bright red.
Lynch told senators that one of the most important issues facing the country is “the need to resolve the tensions that appear to be discussed and appear to be rising between law enforcement and the communities that we serve.”
She said the best way to deal with the problem is to get all parties to meet and talk, “helping them see that, in fact, we are all in this together.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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