AG Loretta Lynch (White House Photo by Pete Souza)
AG Loretta Lynch (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Loretta Lynch won confirmation as the nation’s first black female attorney general Thursday from a Senate that forced her to wait more than five months for the title and remained divided to the end.

The 56-43 vote installs Lynch, now U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, at the Justice Department to replace Eric Holder. Holder has served in the job throughout the Obama administration, becoming a lightning rod for conservatives who perceived him as overly political and liberal, and even getting held in contempt of Congress.

Lynch, 55, is seen as a no-nonsense prosecutor, and has wide law enforcement support. The issue that tore into her support with Republicans was immigration, and her refusal to denounce President Barack Obama’s executive actions limiting deportations for millions of people living illegally in this country. Questioned on the issue at her confirmation hearing in January, she said she believed Obama’s actions were reasonable and lawful.

Democrats angrily criticized Republicans for using the issue against her, saying an executive branch nominee could not be expected to disagree strongly with the president who appointed her, but Republicans were unapologetic.

Announced GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Lynch’s comments rendered her “unsuitable for confirmation as attorney general of the United States. That was a shame.”

Yet after returning from the campaign trail to rail against Lynch on the Senate floor Thursday, Cruz was the only senator absent when the vote was called. He voted “no” on a procedural vote earlier in the day, which spokeswoman Amanda Carpenter insisted “was the vote that mattered.” She did not explain why Cruz missed the confirmation vote, but an invitation on his campaign website showed he had a fundraiser in Dallas to attend.

Still, Lynch won the support of 10 Republicans, more than expected in the days heading into the vote. In a surprise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among those voting “yes.”

Obama said the U.S. would be better off with Lynch.

In a speech to his advocacy group, Organizing for Action, Obama said Lynch had established credibility with both law enforcement and civil rights groups, adding that he wanted to work with her to rebuild trust between police and communities in the U.S.

“She’s spent her life fighting for the fair and equal justice that’s the foundation of our democracy,” Obama said.

Lynch grew up in Durham, North Carolina, the daughter of an English teacher and a minister. Her father, Lorenzo Lynch, 83, watched from the Senate visitors’ gallery Thursday as his daughter won confirmation.

Afterward, he told reporters: “The good guys won. And that’s what’s been happening in this country all along, even during slavery.”

The long delay in confirming Lynch since she was nominated in November incensed Democrats, with Obama himself weighing in last week to lament Senate dysfunction and decry the wait as “crazy” and “embarrassing.” There were various reasons for the delay, most recently a lengthy and unexpected impasse over abortion on an unrelated bill to combat sex trafficking that McConnell insisted on finishing before moving to Lynch.

Yet Democrats controlled the Senate when Lynch was nominated last November and could have brought up her nomination for a vote then. They held off with the GOP’s encouragement after being routed in the midterm elections and spent the time confirming judges instead.

There was an expectation that Republican leaders would move Lynch’s nomination swiftly this year, especially since many GOP members of Congress are eager to be rid of Holder. Instead, the nomination became tangled in the dispute over Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and seemed to stall.

There was never any real doubt that she would win confirmation in the end, but going into the vote only five Republicans had declared their support. In addition to McConnell, the Republicans who ended up voting “yes” were Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Ayotte, Portman, Johnson and Kirk all face voters next year.

In a statement, McConnell said Holder’s Justice Department “has too often put partisan and ideological considerations ahead of the rule of law. It is a department desperately in need of new direction and leadership. I am hopeful that Ms. Lynch will use her lengthy professional experience and skills to provide the new leadership, reform and improved relations with the Congress.”

In floor debate ahead of the vote, Democrats lambasted Republicans for opposing Lynch on immigration.

“What my colleagues are saying today is it doesn’t matter if you are qualified … that makes no difference. We have a new test. You must disagree with the president who nominates you,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “This defies common sense.”

Yet in the end even the Senate’s hardliners on immigration refrained from trying to drag out the final vote into Friday.

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. She’ll take over a Justice Department focused on fighting terrorism and cyberattacks, and consumed in a national debate over law enforcement’s treatment of black men.

Associaated Press

Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Jim Kuhnhenn and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.