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When It Comes to Holder, Specter Has Reservations

By Al Kamen
Friday, December 12, 2008

A plan by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to hold confirmation hearings Jan. 8 for Eric H. Holder Jr., the nominee for attorney general, is coming under fire from committee Republicans.

The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), appeared on the Senate floor Wednesday to call for a delay of at least two more weeks to review Holder's record as a local judge, federal prosecutor and then deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. Among other things, Specter reported that Holder's extensive nominee questionnaire and FBI background check were not yet complete, our colleague Carrie Johnson reports.

"I am looking for a very constructive engagement to determine the qualifications of Mr. Holder," Specter said.

Specter's remarks ignited a tit-for-tat letter-writing exchange in which Leahy said he was "confounded" by his colleague's position. "The need for new leadership at the Department of Justice is as critical today as it ever has been," Leahy wrote, and he noted that the pre-inauguration hearing was standard operating procedure.

Prominent GOP advisers, including former White House aide Karl Rove, have criticized Holder for his role in a last-minute 2001 pardon that President Bill Clinton bestowed on fugitive financier Marc Rich. But more moderate Republicans say that the pardon issue alone will not be enough to jeopardize Holder's confirmation.

We had assumed Specter's request was the traditional ploy to draw things out so opponents would have more time to find dirt on the nominee.

But then Leahy delivered a shot, implying that Specter, one of the Senate's best-traveled members, actually wanted a schedule change to accommodate an overseas trip over the holidays.

Leahy noted that he had asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to "facilitate your 14-day trip to 10 countries from December 25 through January 7." He then asked Specter, "Please do let me know who the other Senators are who will be accompanying you."

Hmmm. Leahy, as Judiciary chairman, probably authorized Specter's congressional delegation, though it's possible he didn't know that the "delegation" was just Specter and his wife and an aide, who are taking a military jet to Europe and the Middle East over the holidays. The itinerary includes stops in England, Israel (his 26th visit), Syria (18th) and Austria. The Austria stop is for a chat with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

This sparring could get ugly come the confirmation hearing.

Transportation Shortlist

With President-elect Barack Obama rounding out his Cabinet, and most all nominees expected to be announced before Christmas, attention is turning to the race to become transportation secretary, a plum perch from which to influence an issue atop the new administration's agenda: the economic stimulus infrastructure plan.

Obama is down to a small group of finalists, and Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees transportation planning and financing in the nine-county San Francisco Bay area, is said to be in the rail position.

Sources said that Heminger, who declined to talk to In the Loop, has met with Obama. But the list is also said to include two transportation officials from the Clinton administration: Jane Garvey, who ran the Federal Aviation Administration, and Mortimer Downey, a deputy transportation secretary.

Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk is said to also be under consideration for this or another job in the administration. Reached yesterday at his Houston law office, Kirk said he did not know whether he would land the post. "As General [Colin] Powell said, if the president feels that there is a role that I can play in the administration, that is something I would have to consider," Kirk said.

Heminger, a technical expert on infrastructure issues, has the backing of powerful members of California's congressional delegation, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The Fix Is In

The Senate and the House, in voice votes Wednesday night that left no fingerprints, quietly approved a measure to reduce the secretary of state's pay to its 2007 level, from $191,300 to $186,600. The measure now goes to President Bush. The White House says he'll sign it.

The resolution, popularly known as the "Saxbe Fix," is an effort to deal with the Constitution's quite explicit emoluments clause, which says that no member of Congress shall be named to any office "the emoluments whereof shall have been increased during his term."

So Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in the Senate when the pay last increased, will lose $4,700 a year when she takes the job, in a ploy to accommodate the Founding Fathers' wishes. This could hurt, especially if Bill's speechmaking income takes a hit from possible future restrictions because of his wife's post.

Madison wept.

An Addition to the Family

The Pentagon issued a 56-page report last week titled "Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force." A real page-turner, you see, but our attention flagged somewhere between Page 8 and Page 9. After all, who reads this stuff?

The crafty North Koreans do. For there, on Page 32, was this sentence: "The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia."

Time for fireworks and celebrations in Pyongyang. It's long been the stated policy of the United States that it would never, never, never acknowledge that North Korea was a nuclear power. Yet here it was, baldly stated, in a Pentagon document, our colleague Glenn Kessler reports.

KCNA, the slightly loony news agency of the North Korean government, issued a triumphal statement noting the event. "It is the first time that the U.S. officially recognized [North Korea] as a nuclear weapons state and announced it in its government report," KCNA said.

The Pentagon quickly backtracked, saying the whole thing was a mistake. "As a matter of policy, we do not recognize North Korea as a nuclear state," a spokesman declared. Apologies were sent to U.S. allies.

Of course, allies all privately think the United States has decided to live with North Korea as a nuclear power, so this will simply further feed their paranoia.

Viva Las Vegas

The first report of the Congressional Oversight Panel for Economic Stabilization, which was set up to monitor the administration of the Troubled Assets Recovery Program (TARP), better known as the Wall Street bailout, is not riveting reading. Then we came to Page 34 of the 38-page report, titled "Future Oversight Activities." The panel said it "will hold a series of field hearings to shine light on the causes of the financial crisis, the administration of TARP, and the anxieties and challenges of ordinary Americans."

And where's the first hearing? Vegas!

In all fairness, Las Vegas is ground zero for home foreclosures, but still . . .

With Philip Rucker

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