The irony could have never been this bitter for Loretta Lynch. Just in the final stretch of becoming the nation’s first Black woman attorney general — poised to replace Eric Holder, the first Black male AG — Lynch now finds her political fate bound and tangled up in, of all things, a human trafficking bill.
Lynch should have been confirmed last week, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), seeking to save face with a doubtful Republican caucus that watched him bungle near-government-shutdown spats over immigration and the budget, abruptly reneged on his promise to hold a final vote on the nominee even as her nomination slid almost effortlessly out of committee.
The always prickly subject of abortion had entered the Senate scene as the next in a string of bizarre snags delaying Lynch’s confirmation. Prepped to pass a bi-partisan bill bolstering the national fight against human trafficking, Senate Democrats caught Senate Republicans sneaking a controversial anti-abortion amendment into the bill.
All parliamentary hell soon broke loose.
As a result, a four-month trek for Lynch has exploded into unwanted historical markers and symbolic histrionics. Democrats, already under pressure from anxious pro-choice groups watching their cause gradually melt in the states, pitched proverbial last stands against passing it. Republicans, under an equal amount of pressure from their pro-life right, held ground on passing the bill with the amendment, but throwing in Lynch’s nomination as a hostage against Democratic resistance.
How Lynch’s nomination got stuck in a seemingly unrelated legislative fight over a Senate bill continues to perplex numerous observers. After all, her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing was among the most uneventful in recent history save the dozens of references to her outgoing predecessor Eric Holder. Even Holder, visibly fatigued and ready to exit from a record-holding six years of service as chief of the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet, couldn’t help but joke at a recent midday Washington event that he was “feeling love there that I haven’t felt for some time.”
“It’s almost as if Republicans in Congress have discovered a new fondness for me,” said Holder to friendly audience laughter.
The problem is they haven’t. Stunning many pundits and also perturbed Lynch supporters is the fact that there’s really no battle over her qualifications. With the exception of easily reconcilable concerns over Lynch’s expert legal opinion on her boss’ immigration executive order and insider questions over her role in a global bank probe, Lynch is universally viewed (even by many Republicans) as one of the more qualified AG picks in modern history.
“People looked at her qualifications and just said, ultimately, she’s got the background, temperament and poise to serve,” argues Michele Jawando, Vice President of the Center for American Progress’ Legal Progress project. “No one objected to her during the vetting or confirmation hearing stage.”
“So, what we’re seeing now is the obstruction and brokenness that is our political process,” adds Jawando, frustrated that Lynch is now entering unwanted territory. By Monday, her nomination will be the longest held on the Senate floor in U.S. history. The longest overall confirmation process still belongs to Edwin Meese in 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s nominee who spent 13-months in Senate purgatory over ethics allegations.
Still, Lynch’s 134-day confirmation journey (as of this Sunday’s Tribune) is now twice the length of time it took for Holder.
And yet Lynch isn’t even facing questions over her conduct or her ethics.
“The one thing these excuses all have in common is that none of them have anything to do with the nominee herself,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, during a conference call with a number of Black political heavyweights blasting Republicans for the delay. “We know that senators can walk and chew gum at the same time. This is just the latest turn in what has been the most mishandled and manipulated confirmation process in memory.”
That “mishandled” four-month dispute has now led to the North Carolina-born and bred descendant of slaves forced to watch her nomination decided by a political cat fight over hidden provisions in a Senate bill addressing modern human slavery. And when it couldn’t get any worse for Lynch (who is, herself, known as a staunch advocate on human trafficking issues), thornier topics of race and gender show up as both parties dig in for an epic tussle over her fate.
“When a woman of Loretta Lynch’s impeccable qualifications appears before the Senate fully qualified and fully prepared to become the top law enforcement officer of this country, all across the country women are watching, African-American women are watching, and the civil rights community is watching,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Hence, Democrats spent much of the week launching an all-out messaging assault against Senate Republicans, accusing them of stalling the Black woman’s nomination out of petty hostility towards the president and classic GOP animus against people of color. Black Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were assertive, but noticeably measured in a string of public comments on the subject. Clearly outraged, CBC Chair G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) condemned Senate Republican stalling of Lynch, but came just short of accusing their motives as racially motivated.
“The politics that Republicans have played with her nomination are deplorable and opposition to her nomination is nothing more than a political ploy to once again use any means necessary to show their disdain for President Obama,” said Butterfield. “We need to wake up America, and see this for what it is.”
But in a somewhat bizarre and surreal moment on the Senate floor, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), No. 2 in the Senate Democratic leadership, lashed out at Republicans for “ask[ing] Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general … to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”
As Durbin spoke, a large poster board photo of Lynch smiling was in the background.
That episode, fraught with racially-charged language, drew sharp criticism from Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who demanded Durbin’s apology in a floor retort.
“That is unfair, it is unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate,” McCain said. “Such inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this body and serves no purpose other than to further divide us.”
The fresh injection of race into the Lynch nomination fight now has observers concerned that the battle could shift dramatically from an already heated focus over how to pass the human trafficking bill to an uncomfortable back-and-forth over the nominee’s color.
Racial dog whistle politics, of course, are nothing new to many Republicans and conservative candidates who have frequently put such tactics to use during nasty campaigns. Even if the Senate GOP genuinely stalled Lynch’s confirmation to defend the abortion provision or to express displeasure with the Obama administration’s immigration policy, it wouldn’t go unnoticed that polling on race gives Senate Republicans latitude to mobilize a mostly white conservative base against Lynch on the basis of what would be perceived as Democrats’ use of the despised “race card.” A March YouGov survey showed that nearly 60 percent of whites (and nearly half of all Hispanics) believed that “people talk too much about race.”
Jawando concedes that it “speaks to our overall discomfort when we talk about race. Inserting who she is makes people feel uncomfortable.”
“But we should not shy away from who she is, we can also point to what she’s done and speak to why we need to confirm her.”
Hence, some observers, and many Lynch supporters, are now cautious that inserting race into the equation could cloud a needed and ongoing conversation about her qualifications.
“If current Attorney General Eric Holder were not African American, the Democrats’ strategy might be more effective,” Republican strategist and CivicForum PAC founder Ford O’Connell tells the Tribune. “But given that the Democrats’ best argument against the Republican foot-dragging on Lynch is ‘for shame,’ racial politics, they probably should recalibrate. This fight is not really about Lynch, but leverage as it pertains to legislation.”
Urban Faith political analyst Jeneba Ghatt doesn’t think it’s about race.
“I don’t think this is about race but as Democrats know, it’s a winner among its base to make it about race,” argues Ghatt. “It may turn off the GOP but at this point in the political climate, each side has realized it’s better to act in the interest of the base rather than compromise.”
O’Connell, along with senior sources on Capitol Hill, predict Lynch won’t be confirmed until April or May. Other observers expect more stonewalling until Republicans figure the political cost is too high elsewhere.