WASHINGTON - President Obama's pick for U.S. attorney general defended the administration's executive actions on immigration during questioning at a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch pledged to be an independent legal voice as the nation’s top law enforcement officer if confirmed by the Republican-led body, many of whose members accuse the Justice Department of acting politically under outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.
For years, Republican lawmakers have blasted the Justice Department as enabling an out-of-control president who disregards U.S. law and the Constitution. Republican dissent reached a fever pitch last year after Obama acted on his own to shield roughly 5 million undocumented workers from deportation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley tried to pin down Lynch’s views on the matter, asking whether she believes "the president has the legal authority to unilaterally defer deportations in a blanket manner for millions of individuals in the country illegally?"
Lynch described the policy as a practical solution to a major challenge in an era of limited federal resources.
"The Department of Homeland Security’s request that they prioritize the removal of the most dangerous of the undocumented immigrants among us seemed to be a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem," she said.
Later in the hearing, Lynch took issue with a senator’s characterization of the president’s executive order as "amnesty" for illegal aliens, adding that citizenship is a right for those born in the United States and an earned privilege for those who are not.
Described department's 'first mission'
In her opening statement, the nominee described protecting America from terrorism as the Justice Department’s "first mission" and said the nation needs to boost protection against cybercrime.
Lynch fielded questions from senators on wide-ranging topics from voting rights protections to marijuana legalization to same-sex marriage.
Overall, she promised to provide independent legal analysis and to defend the law as well as the constitution, which she described as her guiding principle, even when her judgment runs contrary to the views and wishes of the White House.
Democratic senators sought answers from Lynch, as well.
Months after the release of an explosive Senate Intelligence Committee report on U.S. interrogation practices, Patrick Leahy questioned the nominee about waterboarding, which Lynch said she considered to be torture "and thus illegal."
Lynch added that she believes the federal government’s vast data-collection program, run by the National Security Administration, is both constitutional and effective.
Winning over administration critics
Far from stumbling during her confirmation hearing, she seemed to charm even some of the administration’s fiercest Senate critics. John Cornyn, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, did not seem bothered by differences in legal judgment he may have with Lynch, noting he has been married 35 years and "100 percent agreement is an impossible standard."
Lynch, nominated to the post in November, has stirred little controversy in her 16 years with the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn and is expected to win confirmation.
The 55-year-old would be the first black woman to lead the department, replacing another African-American, Eric Holder.
She would come to the post amid tensions between black communities and law enforcement after grand juries failed to indict two white police officers who killed unarmed black men in separate incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.
If approved by the Judiciary Committee, Lynch’s nomination will be voted on by the full Senate.
Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.