By Aruna Viswanatha and Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama's pick for attorney general, on Wednesday sought to make a clean break from the testy relationship her predecessor had with Congress, while supporting the legality of the administration's controversial actions on immigration.
Lynch, a career prosecutor known for her diplomatic skills, struck a delicate balance during her confirmation hearing, telling the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, "I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship."
Her willingness to listen to Republican concerns was generally well received by the senators. Even Tea Party-backed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he welcomed her commitment, describing it as a "sharp break" in style from Attorney General Eric Holder, an unapologetic liberal voice who once declared himself "the president's wingman."
Lynch said she would offer independent and objective advice to the president.
Yet she defended the administration's immigration order from November, which eased the threat of deportation for some five million undocumented immigrants. She repeatedly reminded Republican critics that the immigrants were only receiving a temporary deferral, and stressed that the plan refocused deportation efforts on those who pose a threat.
"I did find it to be reasonable that we would prioritize removal of the most dangerous illegal immigrants," she said.
Lynch, nominated in November, has stirred little controversy in her 16 years with the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn and is expected to win confirmation with some bipartisan support.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the committee, said he convened the hearing to determine if Lynch "has what it takes to fix the Obama Department of Justice," which Grassley said has become too politicized.
The Iowa senator kicked off by taking aim at Obama's executive action on immigration, setting the tone for the topic that dominated the hearing, which stretched over seven hours.
"Not only is this action contrary to our laws, it's a dangerous abuse of executive authority," he said, while telling Lynch her obligation would be to defend the Constitution, not Obama's policies.
Democrats quickly shot back, referring to conservatives including talk show host Bill O'Reilly who have praised the nominee. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who introduced Lynch, said: "The president's immigration policies are not seeking confirmation today. Loretta Lynch is."
In addition to defending the immigration order, she offered similar defenses of Justice Department efforts to go after states that have strict, and allegedly discriminatory, voter ID laws, and to limit marijuana prosecutions in states that have legalized the drug.
She drew on her background in law enforcement to say she would still exercise her own judgment on a case-by-case basis.
"As a prosecutor, I always want the responsibility to still take some sort of action against those who may not be in my initial category as the most serious threat," Lynch said before a packed hearing room that included Lynch's family and red-jacket-clad members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which she belonged to at Harvard.
Cruz did push Lynch in several rounds of questioning to disavow positions taken by the DOJ in multiple recent Supreme Court cases, as well as to address hypotheticals about the limits of government and executive power, growing frustrated as Lynch declined to do.
"There has been nothing I have been able to ask you that has yielded any answer suggesting any limitation whatsoever on the authority of the president," Cruz said.
But there were few fireworks between Lynch and other Republican senators.
"From my point of view, you have acquitted yourself very well," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Lynch after his own second round of questions.
Lynch, 55, would be the first black woman to lead the department. She comes to the post following recent tensions between black communities and law enforcement after grand juries declined to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men in separate incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.
Lynch said one of her top priorities would be to strengthen the relationship between the two. "Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve," she said.
She said she would also like to "expand and enhance" the department's ability to prevent and prosecute cybercrimes.
Lynch, who spent recent weeks visiting with senators, appeared to have built some goodwill ahead of the hearing, and may have benefited from Republican lawmakers' distaste for the current attorney general.
"She's an impressive prosecutor, a U.S. attorney and professional," Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said ahead of the hearing. "For me, anything that would expedite Eric Holder's retirement is a good thing."
The hearing is scheduled to continue on Thursday with other witnesses.
(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha and Julia Edwards in Washington Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Alan Crosby, Susan Heavey, G Crosse and James Dalgleish)