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National

Attorney General Nominee Faces Senate Judiciary Committee

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In a crowded hearing room in Washington today, Loretta Lynch faced hours of questioning in her bid to become attorney general. If confirmed, she would be the first African-American woman to serve in that post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA LYNCH: I believe in the promise of America because I have lived the promise of America.

BLOCK: Senators questioned Lynch on her views about immigration, the death penalty and the controversial attorney general she would replace, Eric Holder. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been watching the hearing. And Carrie, how's it been going so far for Loretta Lynch in this hearing before the Judiciary Committee?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melissa, I've covered three of these hearings for three different attorney general nominees, and by far, this is the easiest one. It's been pretty smooth sailing here. A few examples of that - for instance, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a supporter of Lynch, joked that she's having a harder time being a New York Knicks basketball fan this season than fielding questions from Republicans in the hearing room today. And Congressman Charles Grassley - Senator who runs this Judiciary Committee at one point asked the nominee how things were going. Al Franken, another Senator, a Democrat, asked, how was her lunch?

BLOCK: Well, there must have been tougher questions, I would think, on some of the issues that we mentioned - national security, immigration policy. How has Loretta Lynch been responding to those sorts of questions?

JOHNSON: So far immigration has been the big sticking point here today. The nominee, Loretta Lynch, says she supports in general the legal reasoning for the president's action to grant temporary reprieve from deportation for about 4 million people last year. She had a bit of a stumble on whether undocumented people have a right to work here in the U.S., but she's tried to clear that up with help from Democratic supporters in the Senate.

BLOCK: And on national security - what about there?

JOHNSON: She made clear that terrorists can and will be tried in American courts. She got some questions from Republicans on the desire to bring in two men from Yemen to be tried in Brooklyn, which happened in the last several days. She also said that government surveillance programs, such as the ones leaked by Edward Snowden, are legal and effective, but she's open to some tweaks. And finally, Melissa, she said waterboarding is torture and it's illegal. That has tripped up other nominees in the past, but she seemed to have handled it fairly easily today.

BLOCK: And I gather, Carrie, that a number of Republicans on the committee seem to have more of a beef with President Obama and his current attorney general, Eric Holder.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no further than listening to Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, in this exchange. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Let me just stipulate - you're not Eric Holder, are you?

LYNCH: No, I'm not, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNYN: So no one's suggesting that you are. But of course, Attorney General Holder's record is heavy on our minds now.

JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder - his close relationship with President Obama has been on the table for the entire hearing. But at least three Republican senators seem likely to vote for her in the committee, which would move her nomination to the floor. Melissa, it's still going to take weeks. Republicans are in no rush here, although there's a conundrum from them, which means the longer they wait, the longer Eric Holder, their nemesis, sticks around running the Justice Department.

BLOCK: And Carrie, how long do these hearings last?

JOHNSON: Today focused on the nominee, Loretta Lynch. Tomorrow, Melissa, a slate of witnesses proposed by Republicans and Democrats will speak, including some long-time critics of the Justice Department and Eric Holder on immigration, the fast-and-furious gun trafficking scandal involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms earlier in this president's term and a few other hot-button issues.

BLOCK: OK. Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. We were talking about the first day of confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch. She is the president's nominee to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.