Video: Report: Holder accepts position

updated 1/8/2009 10:25:38 AM ET 2009-01-08T15:25:38

Eric Holder Jr., President-elect Barack Obama's pick for attorney general, brings to his confirmation hearing next week a dream resume and a bull's-eye target with his picture in the middle.

Holder will get a Republican grilling before the Judiciary Committee Jan. 15. Critics challenge his role in President Bill Clinton's pardons while the No. 2 Justice Department official, as well as his failure to recommend an independent investigation of fundraising by then-Vice President Al Gore.

For conservative Republicans, there's a significance to the challenge that goes far beyond any single nominee: Holder is the liberal face of nominees to come as Obama remakes the federal judiciary, and possibly the Supreme Court, after eight years of a Republican White House.

Republicans, even more deeply in minority status in the new Congress, also want to show they can remain relevant in a Democrat-dominated era. The Republican message: We have enough votes under Senate rules to stop a nomination with delaying tactics, so send us centrists, not liberals.

Democrats have their own messages to send in the Holder hearings. He'll be the savior of a Justice Department wracked by Republican scandals. He'll reverse the policies of President George W. Bush's Justice Department: no more mistreatment of foreign detainees, no waterboarding, no political firings of U.S. attorneys and no warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens

Republican aides, who are not authorized to be quoted by name, said some senators agree with former White House political director Karl Rove that the hearings will lay down a marker.

Rove said Republicans will give special scrutiny to the Holder nomination, especially due to his advisory role in Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich — whose wife was a major Democratic donor.

Video: Rove: ‘There will be continuity in Iraq’ Rove, the former White House political director, said in a December television interview that the nomination is "going to be carefully examined, if for no other reason that people want to lay down markers that that kind of behavior is inappropriate."

A Senate Republican aide involved in the hearings said in reference to future nominees: "Others will come before the Judiciary Committee and this is the first statement. If we allow ourselves to get rolled here, we're not doing our jobs." The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because staff members aren't authorized to be quoted by name.

Republicans haven't said they'll ultimately vote against the nominee, and conservative Republican Orrin Hatch recently commented, "I like Eric Holder."

Holder's resume uniquely qualifies him to be attorney general. He was a Justice Department prosecutor of corrupt politicians, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., a judge in the U.S. capital city and the deputy attorney general under Clinton. He's now a partner in a major law firm.

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But supporters are taking no chances.

Civil rights, anti-poverty and law-enforcement groups who support Holder are holding news conferences with Democratic senators and keeping up a steady stream of endorsement letters to the Judiciary Committee.

Obama's new Cabinet?At this point, "There's no evidence of a campaign to stop confirmation," said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

But this week the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said that "aside from these qualifications on Mr. Holder's resume, there is also the issue of character."

Specter said that to get his support, Holder must give satisfactory explanations of several matters:

  • His statement that he was "neutral leaning towards favorable" on the Rich pardon.
  • Testimony several years ago by Rich's attorney that Holder advised him to go straight to the White House rather than follow the regular procedure through the Justice Department's pardon attorney.
  • Whether Holder, as the top adviser to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, yielded to the Clinton administration's wishes when Reno declined to appoint an independent counsel to investigate fundraising by then-Vice President Al Gore.
  • Holder's role in reducing sentences for members of the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group that was responsible for bombings, kidnappings and other events that resulted in six deaths and numerous injuries from 1974 to 1983.

Holder already has apologized for the Rich pardon, saying it was a mistake. And he did recommend that the Justice Department allow Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to expand an investigation into Clinton's sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The Judiciary Committee chairman, Democrat Patrick Leahy, said the Republican decision to target Holder "all started when Rove went on TV to say this is a person we should go after. Some are so used to taking marching orders they can't get out of the habit."

As for the Rich pardon, Leahy said, those who followed the issue "blame Bill Clinton ... They don't blame Eric Holder."

Specter, known for his independence and serious study of judiciary issues, is less an ideologue than his conservative colleagues.

"This guy has serious questions to answer," he said in an interview. "I'm not flexing political muscles."

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