Under pressure from Republicans, Loretta Lynch promised a fresh relationship with law enforcement and with Congress on Wednesday at confirmation hearings to become the nation's first female black attorney general.
"I pledge to all of you and to the American people that I will fulfill my responsibilities with integrity and independence," she said in remarks prepared for the panel led by Republicans who say Attorney General Eric Holder has been too willing to follow President Barack Obama's political agenda.
Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican and committee chairman, said as much in the opening moments of the hearing, the Senate's first confirmation proceedings since the GOP took control this month.
He said the department is "deeply politicized. But that's what happens when the attorney general of the United States views himself, in his own words, as the president's 'wingman.'"
Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is widely expected to win confirmation easily, if only because Republicans are so eager for Holder's tenure to end. He has been a lightning rod for conservative criticism, clashing with Republicans and becoming the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress.
Lynch, a daughter of the segregated South, was accompanied by about 30 family members and friends. Among them were her father, who is a minister, her husband and several members of her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, wearing their trademark red.
In testimony delivered before she was questioned, Lynch said that if confirmed she would focus on combatting terrorism and cybercrime and would protect the vulnerable from criminal predators.
And she was at pains to promise what Republican critics demanded in advance.
"I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate and the entire United States Congress, a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance," she said.
Holder also battled the perception from critics that he aligned himself more with protesters of police violence than with members of law enforcement, a charge he and the Justice Department have strongly denied — but one that resonated in the aftermath of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.
In her prepared testimony, Lynch promised a fresh start in that relationship, too.
"Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve," Lynch said, pledging to "work to strengthen the vital relationships" if confirmed.
Lynch already has earned praise from several GOP senators for her impressive credentials and accomplishments. But she'll face tough questions from Republicans who now control the Senate. The hearing gives them an opportunity to press their opposition to Obama administration policies while showcasing their own governing roles as the 2016 presidential election cycle gets underway.
"She certainly has the credentials. We don't want a repeat of what we had," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a senior committee member. "I look upon her as a pretty good appointment, but I have to listen along with everybody else."
The Judiciary Committee includes some of the Senate's most outspoken Republicans, among them Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential candidate who promised to quiz Lynch on Obama's executive actions on immigration that granted reprieves from deportation to millions.
"We need an attorney general who will stop being a partisan attack dog and instead get back to the traditions of upholding the Constitution and the law in a fair and impartial manner," Cruz said.
Lynch's hearing comes amid a nationwide spotlight on police tactics in the wake of deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, as well as the slaying last month of two officers in New York City. It's an issue Lynch, 55, is deeply familiar with.
Lynch helped prosecute the New York City police officers who severely beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997. Her office in New York is currently leading a civil rights investigation into the police chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer.
Lynch has been the top prosecutor since 2010 for a district that includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, a role she also held from 1999 to 2001.
On a conference call Tuesday, law enforcement officials praised Lynch's nomination. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton described her as a "fair-minded individual" who would be able to navigate sensitive matters of race relations and policing and see both sides.
Lynch grew up with humble beginnings in North Carolina, the daughter of a school librarian and a Baptist minister. She went on to receive undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. "I believe in the promise of America because I have lived the promise of America," she said in her prepared testimony.
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