Washington (CNN)The battle over the confirmation of Loretta Lynch heated up Wednesday as a top Senate Democrat accused Republican leadership of treating the would-be first African-American woman attorney general like a second-class citizen.
Top Dem: GOP puts AG nominee Loretta Lynch 'in the back of the bus'
The charge was a response to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's vow to delay a vote on Lynch until the Senate completes consideration of an unrelated bill to fight human trafficking -- legislation that had broad bipartisan support until Democrats discovered it contained an anti-abortion provision.
Democrats like Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin argue Lynch's nomination has nothing to do with the trafficking bill and are demanding an immediate vote.
"The Republican Majority Leader announced over the weekend that he was going to hold this nomination of Loretta Lynch until the bill, which is pending before the Senate passes, whenever that may be," Durbin said on the Senate floor. "And so 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. That is unfair. It's unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate. This woman deserves fairness."
Lynch's supporters have repeatedly pointed to her pioneering status as the first African-American woman to be nominated to head the Justice Department and Durbin went on to urge his fellow senators to make civil rights history by allowing her to serve. Still, the reference by the No. 2 Senate Democrat to the civil rights era campaign to desegregate buses seemed to represent a new effort to draw attention to Lynch's race.
Republican members and staffers were furious about Durbin's comments and insisted Lynch's race had nothing to do with the situation. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, called the remarks "unfortunate."
"That sort of rhetoric isn't necessary and isn't helpful," he said. "Mitch [McConnell] has said, get us off this bill and her nomination will come up."
Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, the only black senator in Congress, called Durbin's comments "offensive."
"We've got to quit using race as the lowest common denominator to motivate and or shame people into doing things," Scott said. "Let's not use race as bait on issues that are so important to the country. There is no question that this has nothing to do with race on our side, it's obvious that someone is using race on their side."
Durbin's statement on the Senate floor followed commentsTuesday by African-American leaders including Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, and the national president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in which Lynch is a member, suggesting that race could be a factor in the reason for the delay.
Lynch has waited longer for a vote in the full Senate than the past five nominees to the post combined, her supporters say.
Republicans point out that Lynch would be replacing an African-American attorney general, Eric Holder.
Holder, whose tenure has long been criticized by Republicans, is eager to leave the post.
"There is no place I would rather be in my closing days as attorney general than here with you all," he said. "Or, at least, these should be my closing days. Given the Senate's scheduling and delays in considering Loretta Lynch's nomination for a vote, it's almost as if the Republicans in Congress have discovered a new fondness for me."
"I'm feeling love here that I haven't felt for some time, and where was all this affection for the last six years?" Holder said.
Senate fights over nominees are not unusual.
As minority whip in 2005, Durbin helped hold up the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American woman to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. At the time, Durbin called her "one of President [George W.] Bush's most ideological and extreme judicial nominees."
The deal-making to end the current impasse is in the early stages, with Susan Collins, R-Maine, working to resolve the issues.
"There are a number of people on each side of the aisle who would like to see a solution to this problem. I am one of those who would like to see a solution and I think there are a number of different approaches that could be explored," Collins said. "This should be solvable."
Brown was eventually confirmed after members struck a deal.
A procedural vote to end debate on the trafficking bill standing in the way of a Lynch vote failed for the second time on Wednesday.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said it was up to Democrats to help the Senate move on to Lynch.
"The Lynch nomination is next on the schedule," Stewart said. "The only thing holding up that vote is the Democrats' filibuster of a bill that would help prevent kids from being sold into sex slavery. The sooner they allow the Senate to pass that bipartisan bill, the sooner the Senate can move to the Lynch nomination."