Durbin: Selma Anniversary Should Give GOP Pause About Opposing Loretta Lynch

Race and a top nomination for the Obama cabinet.

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Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch (C) speaks after U.S. President Barack Obama (R) introduced here as his nominee to replace Eric Holder (L) during a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House November 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general has not moved through the Senate quite as quickly as Democrats had hoped. Republicans had long ago turned on outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder; cynically, but realistically, Democrats hoped their desire to see Holder gone would foam the runway for Lynch. "I'm hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the Attorney General as a politically independent voice for the American people," said now-Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, when Lynch was nominated.

Yet Lynch came to the Senate after multiple Republicans had threatened to block any nominee for attorney general who would support the Obama administration's executive actions on immigration. After Lynch's hearings, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced that he'd oppose her nomination because of how she'd handled a civil forfeiture case. The scandal over how an HSBC subsidiary allegedly dodged taxes boomeranged on Lynch after Grassley and other Republicans asked why the nominee, as a U.S. attorney, had not scoured HSBC when the scandal emerged.

A committee vote on Lynch could happen on Thursday, pending further holds. On Tuesday, asked about the Republicans and Lynch, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin–the party's whip–brought up the fact that Lynch was a black woman. 

"I would think, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Selma, that Republicans should be more sensitive about what they're doing to this woman," Durbin said.

When pressed by NBC News reporter Frank Thorp on the "implications" he was making, Durbin stood by the claim. "She is an African-American woman who has been nominated for the highest law enforcement position in the history of the United States," he said. "She's being held up for no substantive reason. That's not an implication. That's a statement. You can't celebrate civil rights and ignore the reality that one of the most important civil rights milestones, the appointment of an African-American attorney general, is being held up for no good reason."

Republicans had heard this before–not about Lynch, but about Holder. In 2012, when House Republicans held Holder in contempt for failing to answer all of their questions about a defunct gun-walking investigation, they were accused by Democrats and some in the press of wild racial insensitivity. 

On Tuesday, Republicans quickly rejected Durbin's argument.

"I think the vote for the attorney general is a vote for the attorney general," said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the upper house's only black Republican. "One beautiful thing that history has taught us is that we want to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. So for this to somehow be a racial conversation seems to be wrong -- this is a conversation about competence, and qualifications. This is a question about who's best to serve our country. Whether that's in May or Christmas time, it's important for us to move forward and do the right thing."

Scott was actually a co-chair of the upcoming Selma commemoration in Alabama. One of that state's senators, Jeff Sessions, only ran for office after his nomination for a judicial post was stymied by accusations of racial sensitivity. Like Scott, he utterly rejected the idea that Republicans would hurt their image by slow-walking or opposing the Lynch nomination.

"No, no, I don't think that has anything to do with that," he said. "The Senate has extended the Voting Rights Act and made clear its commitment to equal rights and voting rights."

Correction: This article initially said that the Lynch vote could happen on Friday, not Thursday.

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