WASHINGTON (CN) - GOP opposition to nominating a new Supreme Court justice took over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday that brought Attorney General Loretta Lynch to the witness stand.
The normal flow of committee questioning saw repeated interruptions by committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley to defend his position against holding hearings on any nominee President Barack Obama proffers.
In an already contentious presidential election season, the Iowa Republican is part of a faction insisting that Obama's successor should round out the court after the unexpected death last month of conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia.
While Grassley used his opening statement today to touch generally on the Senate's role as a check to executive power, ranking committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy said the body has an obligation to hold public hearings on nominees.
"The Senate's constitutional duty to provide advice and consent on Supreme Court nominees calls this committee to initiate [public hearings]," the Vermont Democrat said. "I mention that because for 100 years since we've had this committee we've done that in public hearings. However, for the next nominee of the Supreme Court, we have yet to hold a single public committee meeting on how we are going to fulfill that constitutional duty."
Leahy tied the vacancy directly to the hearing's purpose of overseeing the Justice Department.
"Now we talk about the Justice Department's responsibility to keep Americans safe, we should remember that if the Senate Republicans refuse to consider the next Supreme Court nominee that is going to make the goal harder for the Justice Department," Lynch said.
Though procedure would normally have Grassley introduce Lynch at this point to give an opening statement, the senator instead interrupted with a counterpoint to Leahy's comments.
Grassley said he anticipates a debate over the Supreme Court vacancy at the committee's business meeting scheduled for Thursday, which was originally convened to consider four pending judicial nominations in lower courts.
"Whether it's today or tomorrow or whether it's for the next seven or eight months, this is an important debate that we ought to have about the Constitution and about not only who's going to be a replacement for Justice Scalia but about the role of the Supreme Court," Grassley said at the hearing.
Later in the three-hour hearing, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., used part of his seven-minute questioning session to hit Republicans on their unwillingness to fill the vacancy, as well as to point out the 31 emergency lower-court openings that the GOP has also declined to fill.
"It's not just with the Supreme Court that the Republican majority is not doing their job," Schumer said, repeating a variation of the Democrats' phrase of choice when discussing the vacancy. "It's about appointments up and down the line."
Schumer also used Lynch to make his point on the vacancy, asking if a partially filled Supreme Court could hurt her department if a justice deadlock were to delay a high-court decision.
"I think people want clarity on those important legal issues," Lynch said.
Instead of moving immediately to the next lawmaker in line after Schumer's questions, Grassley again cut in to defend his position. He pointed out while there are 31 emergency judicial vacancies, Obama has delivered only 12 nominees to the Senate.
When they weren't using her presence Wednesday to lob shots over the Supreme Court vacancy, the senators grilled Lynch on several commonly discussed issues in Congress, including Apple's fight with the FBI, criminal-justice reform, immigration and Obama's recently unveiled plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Grassley asked the attorney general whether the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits Obama from moving inmates held at Guantanamo Bay to the United States. Repeating her past statements, Lynch said it does but that the administration would work with Congress to change that rule.
"That's my understanding of the president's policy," Lynch said. "I believe it's certainly his intention to follow through with that and certainly in the spirit that this committee is to work with me in terms of discussing issues and working to find solutions to issues. I believe that is his plan."
Apple's place in recent congressional business stems from its opposition to requests by the FBI that it unlock the iPhone used by one of the assailants who orchestrated a mass shooting over the holidays in San Bernardino, Calif.
Mirroring the position of FBI Director James Comey, Lynch told the committee that agents are not seeking a "backdoor" into the phone.
"As the attorney general and certainly a citizen I support strong encryption," Lynch said. "I think we all have to. We need it to protect our data, our personal data, our financial data, our medical data. The issue here is warrant-proof encryption."
Criminal-justice reform has been a public goal for several members of the Judiciary Committee in the past year and has received support from Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, as well as from Lynch and other administration officials.
Grassley gave some good news for proponents of these efforts at the hearing Wednesday, saying he has hope there is a deal in place that would bring a sentencing-reform bill to the floor.
"Senator Durbin and I hope that we have an agreement that's sound that will make it possible for our leader to bring this up at the United States Senate," Grassley said, referring to Dick Durban, an Illinois Democrat. "We're having to talk to some of our colleagues now to see if some of the changes we made a adequate."
While the hearing was underway the Senate ended debate on a bipartisan bill that pumps up federal grants to states to combat the recent surge in heroin and opioid abuse.
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