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Justice Department nominee remains in limbo after Senate vote

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Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted Monday to block President Obama’s choice for the No. 2 position in the Justice Department, leaving the nominee in an official limbo that has already lasted months.

James M. Cole, a Justice Department veteran turned white-collar defense lawyer, was nominated for the post of deputy attorney general last May. But Republicans objected, citing, among other concerns, Cole’s previous support for trying international terrorism suspects in U.S. criminal courts.

On Monday, 353 days after his selection, Senate Democrats tried to force a final vote on Cole’s nomination.

But their bid fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster threat: the tally was 50 to 40, with 10 senators absent and not voting. Thirty-nine Republicans voted “no,” and only one — Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) — voted “yes.”

Cole is already doing the job, having been given a temporary “recess” appointment by Obama in December. That appointment expires at the end of this year.

Democrats said Thursday that they would bring the nomination up again. “We are confident that he will ultimately be confirmed,” a White House spokeswoman said in a statement.

Even before Monday’s vote, Cole had waited longer for confirmation than any previous nominee for the post in 30 years. The job entails acting as a kind of chief operating officer under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., setting department policies and deciding how to handle high-profile cases.

The vote came after a debate in which several Republican senators laid out objections — only some of which focused on Cole himself. Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) said he objected to comments that Cole had made in the past — including in a 2002 column in Legal Times — criticizing the Bush administration’s tactics against terrorism.

“He called the 9/11 attacks, and I quote, ‘Criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population,’ ” Burr said, with the implication being that terrorist suspects should be treated as criminals and not enemies in an ongoing war. “Mr. Cole has not rejected or fully explained those comments.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) also said he objected to Cole, in part, because the Justice Department has not complied with Grassley’s requests for information about potential misconduct by agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Defending Cole’s nomination was Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “It’s one week after the successful operation that killed Osama bin Laden . . . and there are people trying to block President Obama from having his full national security team in place,” Leahy said on the Senate floor. “It’s Alice in Wonderland.”

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