WASHINGTON – Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was getting his demagogue on.
He stood on the Senate floor, talking up to the galleries, waving papers in the air, and displaying a big poster with a photograph of President Barack Obama’s pick for attorney general and the words “Confirm Loretta Lynch.”
“Why has the Senate Republican leadership decided to target this good woman and to stop her from serving as the first African-American attorney general of the United States of America?” demanded Durbin of Illinois, who is white. “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.”
Back of the bus? No he di’n’t!
He did, and then some. “It’s time to stop holding her hostage,” the Democratic whip said.
The very white, very male Republican Party has managed to get itself caught in another thicket in the hostile terrain of identity politics. Ashton Carter, Obama’s white, male nominee to be defense secretary, was confirmed in just under 70 days. But Lynch, nominated a month before Carter, continues to languish in the Senate – 131 days and counting – even though she is by all accounts superbly qualified for the job and she got through her confirmation hearings without so much as a scratch.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his fellow Senate Republicans got themselves into this situation by violating the first rule of extortion: Don’t take a hostage you aren’t willing to shoot. McConnell on Sunday said he wouldn’t take up the Lynch nomination until Democrats acted on a sex-trafficking bill that had enjoyed bipartisan support before Democrats noticed that it included an anti-abortion provision. But Democrats have little political incentive to comply with his demands, because they know Lynch has the votes to be confirmed and because the GOP’s troubles with women and minorities worsen each day McConnell delays.
The majority leader, who failed to break a Democratic filibuster of the trafficking bill on Tuesday, tried again with another vote the following day. “It’s really hard to believe what we saw yesterday: Democrats actually filibustering a bill to help victims of modern slavery, apparently because left-wing lobbyists told them to,” he said as he opened the Senate floor Wednesday.
He’s got a point there. The controversial provision, blocking funds from being used to perform abortions, has been in the legislation since it was introduced in January, and Democrats and pro-abortion rights groups apparently failed to notice it. Democrats also contributed to the Lynch delay, by discouraging Obama from making a nomination before the November elections and by declining to move the nomination during the lame-duck session.
But McConnell lost whatever high ground he held when he decided to hold up Lynch unless Democrats swallowed the abortion provision in the sex-trafficking bill. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, protested before Wednesday’s attempt to break the Democrats’ filibuster that “Loretta Lynch has waited 130 days. There’s no reason to delay her confirmation another minute.”
Actually, there is a reason: McConnell is himself being held hostage. He can’t bring up the Lynch confirmation without the unanimous consent of his caucus, which he probably couldn’t get. And if he shelves the trafficking bill, Republican senators would be furious at him for backing down. That’s not something McConnell is likely to risk after inflaming conservatives with his surrender in the Department of Homeland Security funding battle last month.
And so Democrats are watching McConnell squirm. They point out that Lynch has waited longer for a confirmation vote than any attorney general nominee since Edwin Meese 30 years ago. And they say that she has been on the “executive calendar” – awaiting a Senate floor vote – for 18 days, longer than the last five attorneys general combined.
“It’s time for the majority leader to release the hostage,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., demanded Wednesday morning at a news conference featuring four U.S. flags and seven women: Murray, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and representatives of five women’s groups.
And out on the Senate floor, Durbin brazenly played the race card. “It’s time for us to give Loretta Lynch an opportunity to continue to serve America, to make civil rights history,” he said, calling her nomination a “civil rights milestone.”
Perhaps. But it is certainly a milestone of political malpractice that Republicans have put themselves in this position again.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.