WASHINGTON — Claire McCaskill came to the Senate gallery not to argue, but to rail. The Missouri senator stood in the nearly empty gallery at just after 11:00 Thursday morning. Before she spoke, other members of the Senate stated their case for or against Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general. During his allotted time, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz repeatedly denounced Lynch as “lawless” for her refusal to denounce the president’s policies, particularly on immigration. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein called her “an uncommon nominee for an uncommon time” who deserves, on merit, to be approved unanimously.
Lynch was ultimately approved by the Senate in a 56-43 vote just before 2:00 in the afternoon, after a wait longer than all but two people ever nominated to be attorney general. The final tally came complete with a surprise “aye” vote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — one last flourish after more than 160 days of waiting and an unprecedented filibuster.
The vote, and an earlier cloture motion, came after Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement on a human trafficking bill that Democrats have called irrelevant to Lynch’s nomination, since the Senate has routinely moved legislative and executive matters through the body at the same time. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer characterized the belated deal in a press conference after the cloture vote as the final act in a disingenuous ruse by Republicans to stall Lynch’s nomination. Ranking judiciary committee member Pat Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said the Lynch delay did not even stack up as payback for the treatment of George W. Bush’s nominees, since by this time in Bush’s second term, the then-Democratic controlled Senate had moved 15 judicial picks through — as compared to the current GOP majority’s two.
But it was McCaskill who spoke to the raw emotion of the Lynch delay.
“This should be a happy day for America,” she said in her opening remarks on the Senate floor ahead of the vote to end the filibuster. “This is about the American dream. This woman is the embodiment of the American dream.”
“Instead, I’m depressed,” she continued, calling the entire saga, “politics at its ugliest.”
“Republicans are saying it doesn’t matter if you’re qualified,” the Missouri senator said. “You must disagree with the president who nominated you. … [Republican senators] must vote against the cabinet nominee of the duly elected president of the United States unless she disagrees with the duly elected president of the United States.” It’s a “new requirement” of cabinet nominees, invented in the Obama era, that McCaskill termed an “affront to the notion of ‘advise and consent’” and that she described as “disgusting.”
In the end, the Lynch nomination will be remembered more for what it has said about Senate Republicans’ attitude toward Barack Obama than for what it says about Lynch, who has twice been easily confirmed by the Senate to be the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York and who even Republicans have long conceded is eminently qualified for the job.
As Cruz demonstrated on Thursday, it is Republican distaste for Obama’s presidency — most recently and acutely over immigration but dating to the first days of the administration — that ultimately stalled Lynch’s historic march to the head of the Justice Department. Holder, Cruz said in his speech before the cloture vote, has “refused to impose any limits on the president, and we can expect more of the same” from Lynch. The only difference, the firebrand Texas senator said, was that Holder waited until he was in office to flaunt his “lawlessness,” while by refusing to denounce President Obama’s immigration actions, Lynch didn’t even wait until the Justice Department drapes were measured.
The dog whistles to the Republican base were clear. But there was another base that has been listening too: African-American women.
Loretta Lynch and black women
Black women have since 2008 been Obama’s most loyal base, and Lynch is the first full fruit of their devotion. Black women voted overwhelmingly for the president, giving him 96% of their votes in 2008 and 2012 and boosting their turnout by 5.1% in 2008 as compared to 2004. They posted the highest voter turnout of any population group in both elections.
And yet the administration made history early on by nominating Latina and Jewish women to the Supreme Court (Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan), and by appointing black men to high-ranking offices, including Holder, as well as Jeh Johnson, who heads the Department of Homeland Security. There are, to be sure, powerful black women in the Obama administration: National security adviser Susan Rice (whose nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state was met by such vehement attacks from Republicans like John McCain over the Benghazi affair that she ultimately withdrew from consideration), and Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser and perhaps the single most influential member of the White House team. But there is a special salience to Lynch’s elevation to the post of chief law enforcement official in the country.
Lynch is a daughter of the South; a Greensboro, North Carolina, native who climbed the academic ladder to make her way to Harvard University, where she co-founded the school’s chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority with Eric Holder’s future wife, Sharon Malone — whose sister happened to have been one of the two black students barred at the University of Alabama’s doorstep by then-Gov. George Wallace.
Her father, Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, sat in the balcony for her hearings and as her historic confirmation battle was concluded. Her mother, a schoolteacher, raised three children, among whom Loretta was the “nerdy” middle child. Lynch grew up to prosecute terrorists and corrupt politicians but also brutal police officers in New York City, including the cops who tortured Amadou Diallo inside an NYPD precinct in 1997. In every sense, Lynch embodies the uniquely American convergence of the southern battle for civil rights and educational access and the northern fight over the policing of black communities. And despite Cruz’s dark warnings, if she indeed continues Holder’s aggressive pushback against limitations to voting access, black communities and civil rights organizations will rejoice.
Fundamentally, Lynch’s elevation represents a singular triumph for a black woman who did everything right — and to McCaskill’s point, it is a reminder that in the unprecedented politics of the Obama era, sometimes that doesn’t matter, so long as the association with Obama remains.
A sea of white hair
To sit inside the Senate chamber is to be reminded where American civic power, let alone judicial power, has long resided.
There have been 82 attorneys general of the United States. All but three of them were white men, and just two were women. The busy Senate floor was teeming with white hair and stilted gaits. On the Republican side in particular, the uniformity is visually striking: Older white men mill about, intersected by the occasional woman, and a smattering of youthful staffers, a handful of them diverse. As they traverse the Senate gallery, Republicans Tim Scott of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida look positively millennial.
As the final vote came through, nearly a dozen women members of the Congressional Black Caucus were seated in a designated box at the edge of the room, including Maxine Waters and Corrinne Brown and Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee and Marcia Fudge. They had come to witness the history Lynch was making and their nervous excitement could almost be felt from the balcony. Many of them have been in the House for decades. They have seen powerful figures come and go, up to and including the first black president of the United States. When the final vote was announced, they seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief and joy. Despite the warnings from the chair against exhortations, the balcony erupted in scattered whoops and applause.
With the tally, Claire McCaskill at last got her happy day. But so did Fudge, the Ohio congresswoman and proud member of Delta Sigma Theta who led a relentless public lobbying campaign to keep Lynch’s nomination alive and at the top of minds, dating back 166 days, when she was still chairwoman of the Black Caucus. Fudge barnstormed the country calling on black women, Deltas and non-Deltas alike, to flood their senators with calls supporting Lynch. Her determination helped ensure that McConnell’s vote would be in the affirmative, and Rep. Bennie Thompson put the same pressure on Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose “aye” vote came amid a re-election campaign made possible by black voters.
Cruz, however, skipped the final vote altogether — he attended a fundraiser instead.
Emily Drew contributed to this report