WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the Justice Department’s No. 3 post, expressed regret on Tuesday for her past “harsh rhetoric” and said she does not favor cutting police funding, as she faced sharp Republican criticism during her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing.
The Senate Judiciary Committee conducted its hearing into the Democratic president’s nominations of Gupta as associate attorney general and Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general, the department’s No. 2 job. Biden’s fellow Democrats on the committee voiced support for both nominees, but Republicans attacked Gupta.
Senator Chuck Grassley, the panel’s top Republican, read aloud past posts from Gupta’s Twitter feed in which she assailed Republicans. He accused Gupta of “strident liberal advocacy” and excessive partisanship, reflecting opposition to her Senate confirmation from some Republicans and conservative activists.
“Her Twitter feed has painted Republicans with a broad brush, describing the Republican National Convention as three nights of ‘racism, xenophobia and outrageous lies,’” Grassley said.
Gupta pledged to work with law enforcement and with Republicans if confirmed.
“I regret the harsh rhetoric that I have used in the past at times in the last several years,” Gupta said. “I wish I could take it back.”
Republican Senator Mike Lee sought to paint Gupta as a hypocrite, noting she previously urged the Senate to reject an apology by one of Republican former President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees who had written racially insensitive comments while in college.
“You told him that his apology was too late and too self-interested,” Lee said. “Is that something that we ought to apply to you?”
“I am a believer in second chances, and redemption,” Gupta replied. “And I would ask for that.”
If confirmed, Gupta would oversee the department’s civil and civil rights divisions, as well as antitrust, environmental, grant-making and community policing matters. Gupta served as acting assistant attorney general of the department’s Civil Rights Division under Democratic former President Barack Obama, overseeing high-profile investigations into systemic abuses by police departments in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the committee chairman, called Republicans hypocritical for criticizing her, noting they “sat by silently while there was no Senate-confirmed associate attorney general for nearly three years” under Trump.
One conservative group, the Judicial Crisis Network, recently starting running a television ad incorrectly claiming Gupta told Reuters in a article last June she supports defunding police, a statement she did not make.
“I do not support defunding the police,” Gupta told the committee.
Durbin called the group’s attacks on Gupta “sad and pitiful” and accused it of “patently false claims.”
Republicans questioned Gupta on her views on racism after she said it “remains very much a live problem in America today.” Republicans tried to portray her as flip-flopping on policy positions, pointing to past comments on decriminalizing drugs and eliminating the qualified immunity legal doctrine that has shielded some police officers accused of misconduct from liability.
Questioned by Republican Senator John Cornyn, Gupta said her prior statements opposing qualified immunity came in her capacity as head of a civil rights group.
“I don’t come in supporting it - elimination - one way or another,” Gupta added, saying her duty would be to follow Biden’s lead on policy and engaging with interested parties on the topic.
Biden’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget director, Neera Tanden, withdrew from consideration last week after facing criticism for previous social media posts blasting lawmakers. Tanden had tried to delete some of the posts.
Monaco, expected to face a smoother confirmation process than Gupta, is a former prosecutor who also served as Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
If confirmed, Monaco would help oversee the department’s investigation into the deadly Jan. 6 rampage at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, an event she called “an attack that cut to our country’s core.”
Monaco pledged that she would provide ample resources to Special Counsel John Durham, named by former Attorney General William Barr to investigate Obama-era officials for their probe into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The committee previously approved Biden’s attorney general nominee, Merrick Garland. The Senate is expected to confirm him as soon as Wednesday.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch;additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone, Grant McCool and Leslie Adler
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