By Shailagh Murray and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Republicans put new obstacles in the path of Eric H. Holder Jr.'s quest to become attorney general, raising concerns that he would prosecute intelligence agents who engaged in potentially illegal interrogation techniques and postponing consideration of his nomination.
The Senate easily confirmed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state yesterday on a 94 to 2 vote after Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) dropped his request for more information about foreign donations to former president Bill Clinton's charitable foundation. Cornyn said yesterday that he had been swayed by a private conversation with Clinton, and he was among those supporting her nomination. Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and David Vitter (La.) cast the dissenting votes.
But even as Cornyn was getting out of the way of one appointee to President Obama's Cabinet, he raised new questions about another. The Senate Judiciary Committee decided yesterday morning to delay a vote to send Holder's nomination to the full Senate while lawmakers attended the morning National Prayer Service with Obama. The hearing was rescheduled for yesterday, but Republicans then requested a one-week delay on the nomination that Democrats were required to grant under committee rules.
Holder has generated more controversy than any other Obama nominee and was sharply questioned in an appearance before the committee last week. Many senators, including some Democrats, said they were troubled by his role in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in the final days of the Clinton administration.
Led by the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), GOP lawmakers also said they had more questions for Holder about whether he would favor prosecuting Bush administration officials for their involvement in warrantless wiretapping and harsh detainee interrogation practices. Cornyn said he would press for Holder to take a stand on the Military Commissions Act, which the Texas Republican described as providing interrogators with immunity from prosecution if they believed they were acting legally.
The Senate approved seven Cabinet-level appointments on Tuesday. But it is taking longer than expected for several of Obama's most prominent nominees to move through the chamber. The Senate Finance Committee spent much of today asking hard questions of Timothy F. Geithner, Obama's pick for Treasury secretary, on tax-return errors that resulted in nearly $43,000 in payments and penalties.
Cornyn's announcement on Tuesday that he would delay Clinton's confirmation for a day received a mixed reception, even within his own party. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, was among those calling for swift action to approve Clinton.
"We shouldn't delay," McCain said in a Senate floor speech yesterday morning. "I don't have to remind you or anyone else in this body, we're in two wars. There's a very fragile cease-fire in Gaza now between Israelis and Hamas. The situation in North Korea seems to have deteriorated again."
McCain continued: "We had an election, and we also had a remarkable and historic time yesterday, and this nation has come together as it has not for some time. I pay attention to the president's approval ratings. Very high. But more importantly, I think the message that the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together and get to work."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) pronounced himself "extremely disappointed" with the Holder delay, describing the nominee as one of Obama's most critical national security appointments.
Holder, who turned 58 yesterday, is a former D.C. judge and U.S. attorney who won support from a bipartisan coalition of law enforcement groups and former Justice Department officials. But conservatives had singled out his nomination for special scrutiny because of the department's role in counterterrorism efforts and in judicial appointments, and because of the baggage Holder carries from the Rich pardon.
The Justice Department was considered one of the most politicized federal agencies under the Bush administration, as the agency's own inspector general concluded.
Specter said at a brief hearing yesterday that he was "reluctant to say or do anything which would delay the reorganization of the Department of Justice." He added that he would pose additional questions to Holder at a private meeting scheduled for today, "with a view toward seeing him confirmed."
But Specter would not say whether he would vote in favor of Holder's nomination.
Holder has picked up support from at least two GOP senators, Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Mel Martinez (Fla.), and Democratic aides on Capitol Hill still predict he will easily be confirmed when his nomination reaches the Senate floor.
The delay has created something of a logjam for second-tier appointees at the Justice Department, including lawyers tapped to run the Criminal Division, the Office of Legal Counsel and other key units.
Left-leaning interest groups including People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice yesterday decried the delay and accused Republicans on the Judiciary Committee of "playing politics" and "grandstanding" with a vital appointment.
"The work of restoring the Department of Justice is too important to be derailed by petty partisan concerns," said Nan Aron, president of the alliance.
At least one other Obama appointee, former representative Ray LaHood, was warmly received at his confirmation hearing for the job of transportation secretary, as he promised to be a "hands-on" secretary focused on delivering more than $43 billion dollars in new road- and bridge-building projects to help jump-start the economy.
The only Republican nominated to Obama's Cabinet who is not a holdover breezed through a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, and his approval is considered a foregone conclusion.