Obama's Attorney General Pick Faces Growing Criticism
Saturday, January 10, 2009; Page A01
Eric H. Holder Jr. is facing increasing resistance to his bid to become the next attorney general, emerging from President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet nominees as the prime target of Senate Republicans, both because of troubling episodes during his service in the Clinton administration and because of the sensitivity of the post overseeing the Justice Department.
With two days of confirmation hearings set to begin Thursday, Holder must demonstrate his independence from Obama to a vocal chorus of GOP lawmakers who want to warn the incoming president that he should not veer too far to the left on national security and judicial nominations. The attorney general plays a pivotal role in those issues, which are of intense concern to conservatives.
What was considered a smooth path to confirmation has recently been complicated as signs of hostility toward Holder have increased over the past month. Political operative Karl Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, singled out the longtime Washington lawyer as the candidate who would face bruising questions.
"The attorney general nominee, Mr. Holder, has got serious questions to respond to with regard to his role in the . . . pardons at the end of the Clinton administration and some other matters," McConnell said yesterday. "Beyond that, I don't anticipate trouble for the new president's nominees."
The confirmation process, said Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the judiciary panel's top Republican, will be Holder's "day in court" and a chance to "state his case" -- an awkward position for a man more accustomed to negotiating disputes than engaging in bare-knuckled fights.
Specter previewed the main line of attack in a floor speech this week, asserting that, in Holder's years as President Bill Clinton's deputy attorney general, he at times "appeared to be serving the interest of his superiors" rather than heeding recommendations from career Justice Department lawyers. The argument echoed criticism that former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in 2007, had acted to please his friend President Bush rather than to uphold the principles of justice.
In a pointed effort to scrub Holder's past, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and two other leading GOP Judiciary Committee members submitted a public records request this week to Illinois officials, seeking information on a thwarted $300,000 legal services contract that Holder won from now-disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
"I told him the hearing wouldn't be easy," Grassley said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the panel's chairman, said he is convinced that Holder will be confirmed on the basis of his top-drawer credentials and experience. Earlier in his career, Holder easily won appointment as a local judge, the District's top prosecutor and the second in command at the Justice Department.
"Eric Holder's long record of public service has earned him strong support from law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups, victims' rights advocates, former Reagan and Bush administration officials, and others," Leahy said. "Any effort to question his character is unfounded."
Even if Leahy is right, Holder supporters fear that grueling confirmation hearings dissecting his record could interfere with Obama's effort to restore confidence in the Justice Department.
Committee Republicans won a small victory by persuading Democrats to delay the proceedings. They are awaiting more materials from the Justice Department archives and the Clinton library and are scouring Holder's extensive nominee questionnaire.