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Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee


Now of all of the items on the Senate's agenda, few could be more telling than this - confirmation hearings are coming for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch. She's a federal prosecutor and would be promoted to replace Eric Holder. Her confirmation is not a sure thing. And that has less to do with her qualifications than with larger Republican concerns about President Obama's acts on immigration and other controversial issues. We're going to talk this through with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So is anything at all known to be controversial in Lynch's background?

JOHNSON: Steve, she's been confirmed twice to be U.S. attorney in Brooklyn with no Senate opposition by voice vote. So this is going to be less about who Loretta Lynch is as a person and as an attorney than about President Obama's agenda for the next two years in office. There are a few things she's going to get raked over the coals about, including perhaps allegedly insufficient enforcement of criminal laws against Wall Street. But by and large she doesn't ruffle many feathers.

INSKEEP: She was nominated some weeks ago, so I guess lawmakers have had some time for a wind up here.

JOHNSON: Well, Senate Republican Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Charles Grassley from Iowa has been exhaustively digging through her background. I'm told that his investigators have even asked to see her performance evaluations, which is not part of the normal process. They're still digging through all that material now, not clear that they've found anything major. But Democrats had hoped, Steve, that they'd be to hold the hearings for Loretta Lynch the second or third week of January. I'm now told that's extremely unlikely - late January, the last week in January, at the earliest.

INSKEEP: OK. So they're looking very closely at this nominee. On the surface you can't complain about that. But what is really going on here?

JOHNSON: What's really going on here is that her nomination is going to be a referendum in part on President Obama's action last year on immigration. His decision to offer temporary reprieve to about 4 million immigrants from deportation - something that Republican David Vitter, a senator from Louisiana and a new member now of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has tweeted about. He said that's amnesty, and he wants to block Loretta Lynch's nomination on that basis alone. She's going to have to answer challenging questions, Steve, in her hearings about whether she approves of the legality of President Obama's decision, and whether she'd do the same thing if she were in office at the time he made it.

INSKEEP: And so this is - are Republicans thinking they might be able to sink this nomination and somehow get leverage over the president?

JOHNSON: I think they're going to drag it out and make it as painful as possible, but it's hard to see at least now, Steve, any real basis for tanking the nomination. However, they may use it to extract some concessions from the Obama administration and bring some pain in terms of national security. Remember, Steve, that later this year, provisions of the Patriot Act are expiring. So national security's going to table all over again, including some of those bulk, metadata programs exposed by NSA leaker Edwards Snowden.

INSKEEP: And so very briefly who's in charge at the Justice Department while we wait for these confirmation hearings to conclude?

JOHNSON: A guy you may know named Eric Holder who's been in office for six years now.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And here's the rub - Republicans on Capitol Hill do not like Eric Holder. He famously was held in contempt by the House a few years ago, and the feeling is very much mutual. So long as Republicans delay the nomination of Loretta Lynch, they're stuck with Eric Holder in charge at DOJ.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for coming by as always.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.