WASHINGTON — After one of the nation’s most protracted Cabinet-level confirmation delays, the Senate on Thursday approved Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. She is the first African-American woman to hold the position.
Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was confirmed 56-43, with 10 Republicans voting for her.
Her confirmation took longer than for all but two other nominees for the office: Edwin Meese III, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and A. Mitchell Palmer, who was picked by President Woodrow Wilson, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Republicans have found themselves in a quandary for months. They longed to replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and they agreed that Lynch was qualified for the job. But they opposed her because Lynch defended President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
South Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators split their vote, with Lindsey Graham backing her, and Tim Scott voting against her.
“The best thing for the country is to have a new attorney general and close the book on Eric Holder,” said Graham. “I also believe presidents should have latitude in picking nominees for their Cabinet, and Ms. Lynch is well-qualified for the job. My goal is to have a Republican president nominate the next Attorney General so we will not be forced to choose between Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.”
Scott took a different tack. “At the end of the day, Ms. Lynch demonstrated that she will not be the independent voice that our country needs at the Department of Justice, and therefore I cannot support her confirmation to become the next Attorney General,” he said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, had held up the nomination until the Senate voted on a human-trafficking bill, a process that dragged on for weeks. The measure passed Wednesday by a vote of 99-0.
And some Republicans continued to strongly oppose Lynch.
“We do not have to confirm someone to the highest law enforcement position in America if that someone has committed to denigrating Congress,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said on the Senate floor Thursday. “We don’t need to be apologetic about it, colleagues.”
In the end several Republicans, to the surprise of many of their own colleagues, voted aye for Lynch, including McConnell.
Some conservative groups had called on Senate Republicans to block a vote on Lynch altogether because of her stance on the president’s immigration policies. Many Senate Republicans feared the party would face serious political repercussions if it blocked an African-American woman with strong credentials and enthusiastic support from many in law enforcement.
Opponents still forced a procedural vote before her final confirmation, an unusual requirement for such a high position. The nomination moved along easily, by a vote of 66-34.
“She is a historic nominee, but also Senate Republicans are making history,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. “And I would say for the wrong reasons.” He added: “I can only hope that Senate Republicans will show her more respect as the attorney general of the United States than they did as a nominee. She has earned this respect. Her story is one of perseverance, of grace and grit.”
The vote also served as a lens on the 2016 elections.
“The Republican majority if it so chooses could defeat this confirmation,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, who called Lynch “lawless.”
Cruz, who made his remarks on the floor in the morning, was present to vote against the procedural motion to move the vote forward. But he missed the confirmation vote a few hours later, because, his spokeswoman said, he had left for Texas, where he had a fundraiser.
Cruz’s comments were immediately answered by several Democrats, who came to the floor to defend Lynch, recall her personal and professional accomplishments, and assail Cruz and his colleagues who opposed her.
“This should be a happy day for America,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. She said Republicans opposed Lynch merely because “she agrees with the man who selected her,” a posture that McCaskill called “beyond depressing — it’s disgusting.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who faces re-election next year, was among those in her party who voted for Lynch.
“Ms. Lynch is a well-respected U.S. attorney with a proven record and significant experience handling difficult cases,” Ayotte said in a prepared statement. “After meeting with her and reviewing her qualifications, I believe she is clearly qualified and has the necessary experience to serve as Attorney General.”
Another Republican running for re-election, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, also gave Lynch a thumbs-up.
The Post and Courier’s Schuyler Kropf contributed to this story.