Loretta Lynch at her confirmation hearing in January.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Loretta Lynch Impasse: Politics at Its Best?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Reports today say the Senate standoff over the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general is finally over, with a vote expected this week.  Yes, the impasse has looked terrible -- "dysfunction in the Senate," Barack Obama called it. But as congressional fights go, it has just been normal politics and reasonably healthy to boot.

Lynch was nominated in November, and has had little opposition. When the vote is called, she will be confirmed. Senate Republicans, however, decided to delay her confirmation as leverage to get their version of a bill to combat human trafficking adopted. Democrats, for their part, have been filibustering the bill over a Republican-backed anti-abortion provision, and they didn't back down, even after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tied the vote on Lynch to the measure. 

Republicans were gambling that Democrats were so eager to have Lynch confirmed (as well as avoid responsibility for opposing action against human trafficking) that they would give in to Republicans on the peripheral abortion measure. Democrats were poised to blame McConnell and his allies for holding up both the bill and the nomination. 

Neither side was making an unreasonable demand, and both had a shot at winning. And since current Attorney General Eric Holder said he would stay on until his replacement was approved, the damage to government has been minimal. 

Contrast this fight with Ted Cruz’s government shutdown over Obamacare in October 2013. In that case, with Democrats still holding a majority in the Senate in addition to the White House, Cruz clearly wasn’t going to win. Moreover, the hostage wasn’t a single nominee but all the parts of the federal government subject to a shutdown, so the damage was widely shared.

Yes, the Senate should confirm the president’s executive-branch nominees in most cases. But it’s also fine for senators to use nominations as weapons in other battles with the White House or with executive-branch agencies.

Barring a collapse of the deal they've reached, it appears this fight is over. If it looked ugly to those of you who dream of  a “cleaner” form of government than one dominated by logrolling and bargaining, stop blaming the Republicans or the Democrats.

Your culprit is a Constitution of separated institutions sharing powers that makes it difficult for even solid majorities to get anything done. And when government is divided, as it is now, it's even impossible to say that one party has an overall majority. 

  1. The issue is convoluted. Republicans attached an amendment to the bill prohibiting government funding for most abortions. Democrats said that while they have accepted this language -- from what is known as the Hyde Amendment -- on appropriations bills for decades, this measure was different because it's an authorization bill setting up a program, and would establish a different precedent. Republicans countered that the anti-trafficking bill is similar to an appropriations bill, which authorizes spending on programs, so omitting the Hyde Amendment language would become the new precedent. 

  2. As I write this, it's still not clear who backed down -- although Harry Reid is declaring victory, for whatever that's worth. 

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net