Republican Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up a high stakes showdown when he said legislators wouldn't consider President Barack Obama's nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general until Congress passes a bill cracking down on human-trafficking. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday described the delay as "inept leadership."
"The delay is unconscionable, it's unexplained," Earnest said. "There is no question that Republicans are playing politics with the nomination of the nation's top law enforcement official, and it should come to an end."
On Sunday, McConnell said it might be until mid-April before the Senate considers Lynch's nomination because he first wants to see the Senate make progress on the human-trafficking measure. The president nominated Lynch to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder 128 days ago.
"There is no question that Republicans are playing politics with the nomination of the nation's top law enforcement official, and it should come to an end."'
The bill has been held up because of the inclusion of anti-abortion language that has led to a heated debate between both major political parties. The measure provides law enforcement with the tools to crack down on convicted human traffickers and offer more help to victims in restoring their lives. But the provision wouldn't allow a restitution fund for victims of human trafficking to get abortions with the money.
Democrats say they didn't pick up on the abortion provision until last week, when they already had agreed to move forward with the measure. Some say they think Republicans slipped the provision in the bill. But Republicans think Democrats are looking for a fight and hoping to mess things up for McConnell, who took over the Senate in January and is having a difficult time moving legislation because of the unified Democratic minority. They say there was no attempt to hide the abortion language.
In November, Obama nominated Lynch to replace Holder as U.S. attorney general. At the time, McConnell said Lynch would receive fair consideration and that her position should be debated in the new Congress through regular order. As Earnest said on Monday, McConnell wanted Obama to delay the nomination until Republicans had the majority in the Senate beginning in January. Now, the Senate leader is in a position of delaying the nomination even further.
COLUMN: McConnell subjects Lynch to ransom-based governing
During the 128-day wait on her nomination, Lynch has submitted to more than eight hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, answered more than 600 written questions from senators, and had countless, private conversations with senators. Lynch has developed strong relations with law enforcement authorities, prosecuted terrorists who targeted the Federal Reserve headquarters in New York, jailed notorious mob members, and gone after public corruption in both political parties. "There has not been a legitimate question that has been raised about her aptitude for the office," Earnest said.
"It's certainly a disappointment," he added. "It's an unconscionable delay."
At the briefing, Earnest wouldn't say whether Obama would sign the bill if abortion language is included.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa joined McConnell in pushing for a vote on the trafficking bill. On Friday she said Democrats are causing obstruction, and that they "either failed to read that bill or again they are just playing partisan politics and political theatrics with an important issue."
Ten Democratic co-sponsors signed onto the bill and all Senate Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to bring the bill out of committee.
It is the responsibility of the U.S. Senate to vote on the president's nominees. No other attorney general candidate in three decades has had to wait as long as Lynch for a confirmation vote.