African American and other civil rights leaders infuriated over the stalled confirmation vote on Loretta E. Lynch, the first black woman to be nominated for attorney general, are casting the delay as an issue with racial overtones.
They are urging the Senate to act immediately and end a process that has lasted more than five months.
Activists across the country are three days into a hunger strike over the Senate’s failure to vote on Lynch. African American groups have also protested outside the offices of senators who oppose her leading the Justice Department. And one Democratic senator has compared the holdup to the treatment of civil rights activist Rosa Parks in the segregated South, saying that Lynch has been “asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”
“The question we all want answered is: Why is it impossible to have a simple constitutional vote on the floor of the Senate?” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, which is organizing the hunger strike. “Why is it that the first black female nominee is being treated in such a disrespectful and inexcusable manner?”
President Obama has not cast the delay over Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in racial terms. But in his strongest comments to date about the issue — and his most animated remarks during a news conference Friday with the Italian prime minister — he called the inaction a “crazy situation.”
“A woman who everybody agrees is qualified, who has gone after terrorists, who has worked with police officers to get gangs off the streets, who is trusted by the civil rights community and by police unions as being somebody who’s fair and effective, and a good manager . . . who’s been confirmed twice before by the United States Senate for one of the biggest law-enforcement jobs in the country, has been now sitting there longer than the previous seven attorney general nominees combined,” Obama said.
“What are we doing here?” Obama continued. “There are times when the dysfunction in the Senate just goes too far . . . Enough. Enough. Call Loretta Lynch for a vote. Get her confirmed. Put her in place. Let her do her job. This is embarrassing, a process like that.”
In November, Obama nominated Lynch, the daughter of a fourth-generation Baptist minister from North Carolina, to replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who had announced two months earlier that he was stepping down as soon as the Senate approved a new nominee. On Feb. 26, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Lynch by a vote of 12 to 8.
But then the nomination went nowhere.
Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) voted with the nine Democrats on the committee to approve the nomination. Since then, Lynch has picked up the support of two more Senate Republicans, which, along with the Democrats, would give her 51 votes, enough to be confirmed.
The full Senate was expected to vote on Lynch’s nomination a week or two after the committee did so. Instead, it became tangled in a controversy over the abortion provisions in a human-trafficking bill. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate would not take any action on Lynch until the dispute over the trafficking bill was resolved.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) took to the Senate floor and compared the nominee to Parks.
“Loretta Lynch, the first African American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar,” Durbin said. “That is unfair. It’s unjust.”
The comparison did not sit well with Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lashed out at Durbin.
“It is beneath the dignity and decorum of the United State Senate . . . for him to come to this floor and use that imagery and suggest that racist tactics are being employed to delay Ms. Lynch’s confirmation vote,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “It was offensive and unnecessary, and I think he owes this body, Ms. Lynch and all Americans an apology.”
Holder, for his part, joked that Republicans, who had clashed with him repeatedly over the last six years, had “discovered a new fondness for me” because the longer the delay, the longer he remains attorney general. But Holder said the issue was more about politics than race.
“My guess is that there is probably not a huge racial component to this, that this is really just D.C. politics, Washington at its worst,” Holder told MSNBC. “A battle about something that is not connected to this nominee — holding up this nominee.”
Finger-pointing intensified this week with White House press secretary Josh Earnest calling the delay “unconscionable.” Earnest also criticized Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) for an “astounding degree of duplicity” for suggesting that Democrats and the president contributed to the delay by not urging Lynch’s confirmation when Democrats controlled the Senate last fall.
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine shot back: “If nothing else, the White House certainly is good at rewriting history. The fact of the matter is that when Eric Holder announced his intention to step down in September, Senate Democrats had a 55 seat majority . . . It was abundantly clear then — just as it is now — that Senate Democrats’ priorities didn’t include the Lynch nomination.”
There are indications that the deadlock might be easing. McConnell canceled a morning vote Friday to break the Democratic filibuster of the anti-trafficking bill, citing new negotiations that could resolve the conflict, and a Republican leadership aide said the two sides are “closer to a deal than we have been in the past.” If an agreement is reached, the Senate could move quickly on the trafficking bill and take up the Lynch nomination next week.
But until that deal comes, hundreds of civil rights activists, mostly women, will continue to fast, according to Janaye Ingram, the executive director of the National Action Network. The network, along with a coalition of other civil rights groups, sent a letter on Friday to McConnell calling for an immediate vote on Lynch.
“People are willing to go without food in order to have a vote,” she said.
Julie Tate and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.