Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., listens as U.S. Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch testifies during her confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 28, 2015.
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP

GOP uses Loretta Lynch hearing to debate voting rights

Republicans used the confirmation hearings this week for Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general nominee, to stress their commitment to voting restrictions—and to try to tie Lynch’s hands on voting issues should she assume the post.

One GOP senator pressed Lynch on her stance on restrictive voting laws. And Republicans asked for testimony from a witness who has led the effort to stoke fear over voter fraud, suggested her group was targeted by the Obama administration because of her group’s support for voter ID laws.

Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department has acted aggressively to protect voting rights, challenging strict GOP-backed voting laws in Texas and North Carolina. Holder also has seemed to compare these laws to past efforts to keep minorities from voting. So Republicans sought to put pressure on Lynch to take a more conciliatory approach.

RELATED: Holder pledges White House’s continued support for voting rights

Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, asked Lynch Wednesday afternoon about her position on the sweeping voting law that his state’s Republicans passed in 2013. Tillis himself, who at the time served as speaker of the state House, was a key backer of the law, which cuts early voting, ends same-day registration and, starting in 2016, imposes a photo ID requirement, among other restrictions. The Justice Department has challenged the law under the Voting Rights Act.

In response, Lynch, a North Carolina native, didn’t answer directly.

“It’s not something that I’m intimately familiar with,” she said. “I look forward to learning more about it should I be confirmed, and I believe the matter will proceed to court and we will await the results there.”

Tillis then read more pointed comments on the law that Lynch made in a speech on Martin Luther King Day last year.

At that time, she said: “I’m proud to tell you that the Department of Justice has looked at these laws and looked at what’s happening in the Deep South, and in my home state of North Carolina has brought lawsuits against those voting rights changes that seek to limit our ability to stand up and exercise our rights as citizens. And those lawsuits will continue.”

The Justice Department charges that the law discriminates against minority voters. A trial is scheduled for this summer, but North Carolina has already asked the Supreme Court to rule on the law’s constitutionality.

Separately, Republicans called as a witness Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder and president of True the Vote, a Tea Party-linked group that has trained activists to look out for voting irregularities at the polls. The group’s goal, one leader told volunteers at a 2012 conference, is to make voting feel “like driving and seeing the police following you.”

RELATED: Voting rights’ precarious position

In her testimony Thursday, Engelbrecht denied that voter ID laws disenfranchise voters. Instead, she said Obama’s executive order deferring deportation for some undocumented immigrants is “the most significant voter disenfranchisement threat currently facing our country,” because, she implied, some undocumented immigrants might illegally vote.

Engelbrecht then appeared to accuse the Justice Department of a complex intimidation scheme linked to the voter ID controversy. She said her lawyer was contacted last year by the DOJ’s Public Integrity unit, about a possible interview in connection with the IRS targeting scandal – Engelbrecht has said True the Vote was a victim of unfair scrutiny by the IRS. But at the same time, Engelbrecht said, the DOJ was “fighting tooth and nail” to prevent True the Vote from intervening against the lawsuit the department filed in 2013 against Texas’s strict ID law.

“For decades I went unnoticed by the federal government,” she told the Senate panel Thursday. “But now find myself on the receiving end of interagency coordination into and against all facets of my life, both public and private.”

One Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, couldn’t contain his irritation at the Republican approach, which also included testimony from Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News journalist who has suggested that the Obama administration may have hacked into her computer.

“This solemn occasion has been co-opted to that extent and turned into what appears to be a soundbite factory for Fox News and conspiracy theorists everywhere,” said Whitehouse. “We actually have a nominee in front of us. … We should get about the business of voting on her.”

Justice Department, Loretta Lynch, North Carolina, Texas, Thom Tillis and True The Vote

GOP uses Loretta Lynch hearing to debate voting rights