The Senate confirmed the first African-American woman attorney general Thursday afternoon, but the vote was significant for reasons beyond the nominee’s race and gender.
For the 56-43 vote also confirmed the folly and cynicism of the Republican opposition that caused Loretta Lynch to wait longer for Senate approval than the seven previous attorney general nominees combined. Republicans who control the Senate said the delay was caused by matters of principle. First, they held her nomination hostage to approval of abortion restrictions in a human trafficking bill. But when a compromise was reached, 34 Republican senators still voted to filibuster her nomination.
The delay was not about principles. It was about dysfunction. Republican senators are captive to their right wing and the tea party. Even after winning control of the Senate in 2014, they cannot lead, compromise or get beyond gridlock. The delay came despite agreement on Lynch’s qualifications. She has outstanding academic credentials and has served well as a U.S. Attorney in New York. Indeed, in her two postings as a U.S. Attorney, she was twice confirmed by the Senate.
A new test
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The opposition to Lynch was about right-wing opposition to President Obama and his executive orders granting temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants. During her confirmation hearings, Lynch did not support Republican claims that Obama’s orders exceeded his authority. Republicans responded by making her wait more than 160 days for a confirmation vote. To hold up a nominee to punish her nominator was an abuse of the Senate’s constitutional obligation to advise and consent on presidential nominees. Instead, it was a process of obstruct and ignore.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., correctly mocked the Republican reasons for withholding approval. “We have a new test,” she said. “You must disagree with the president who nominates you.”
McCaskill noted that the confirmation should have been an affirmation of the American dream. Instead, the protracted delay has made it a symbol of inflexible and damaging political opposition to a twice-elected president.
“It is beyond depressing,” McCaskill said on the Senate floor. “It is disgusting.”
North Carolinians had additional cause for disgust. Both of the state’s senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, voted against confirming Lynch despite her being a North Carolina native and ten other Republicans voting to confirm her. Their votes against a daughter of North Carolina made history of another sort. They ensured that Lynch was confirmed with the highest Senate opposition ever to an attorney general nominee – 43 no votes. The previous record was 42 against John Ashcroft.
The race issue
Tillis and Burr object not only to Lynch’s support of the president’s actions, but also to her support for a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit that seeks to suspend North Carolina’s new voting restrictions. The lawsuit is well-grounded and reflects broad opposition to the changes. Whether the changes are legal is up to the courts, not Lynch.
During the months that Lynch was denied approval, some asserted that the delay showed racial bias. Republicans insisted race was not an issue, and President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder ascribed it to partisan gridlock rather than bias. But racism is about effect as well as motive. Though Republicans were not acting out of prejudice against an African-American, they nonetheless acted with a callousness toward the symbolism Lynch’s nomination held for African-Americans.
In a time when the nation is wrestling with charges that police often abuse the rights of blacks, an African-American waiting to become the nation’s top law enforcement officer was treated as a pawn and opposed at a record level, including the no votes of the senators from her native state. In this confirmation vote, Republicans showed a contempt for the process that ultimately became disrespect for an eminently qualified nominee.