updated 2/3/2009 7:25:56 AM ET 2009-02-03T12:25:56

The Senate voted to confirm Eric Holder as attorney general Monday evening, making President Barack Obama's choice the nation's first African-American to hold the job.

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Though debate quickly turned partisan when his chief supporter denounced Republicans who sought a pledge not to prosecute intelligence agents who participated in harsh interrogations, the Senate still confirmed Holder as expected.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, singled out Texas Republican John Cornyn as one who wanted to "turn a blind eye to possible lawbreaking before investigating whether it occurred."

A small group of Republicans sought such a pledge from Holder, but he declined to give one. Leahy, D-Vt., has been infuriated for several weeks by such demands.

"No one should be seeking to trade a vote for such a pledge," Leahy said.

Despite the partisan beginning, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Holder made mistakes but was well-qualified for the job and should be confirmed.

The Senate voted 75-21 for Holder's confirmation.

Holder's confirmation will trigger reviews — and changes — to the most controversial Bush administration policies, from interrogation tactics to terrorism trials and warrantless surveillance.

Those are some of the known issues. Even Holder doesn't know what he'll find when he looks at secret memos in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

Holder will have to rehabilitate a department that under President George W. Bush was criticized for injecting politics in hiring career officials and firings of U.S. attorneys.

He'll have to decide whether to prosecute Justice Department officials who may have violated the law in some of these policies and tactics.

Holder also could reverse Bush's orders to former aides not to testify before Congress on their private advise discussions on the U.S. attorney firings.

To the satisfaction of Democrats and consternation of some Republicans, Holder told his confirmation hearing, "Waterboarding is torture." The statement about an interrogation technique that simulates drowning was an important signal of a policy change from Bush's view that the tactic was legal and not torture.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.

He also created a special task force, co-chaired by the attorney general and the secretary of defense, to review detainee policy going forward.

The group will consider policy options for apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees and report to the president within 180 days.

One of Holder's most intriguing missions will be to review the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and viewed themselves as attorneys for the White House.

The Justice Department's inspector general, in a report on the removal of nine U.S. attorneys, said the legal counsel's office — in effect — thumbed its nose at department internal investigators and refused to provide a crucial document. The office stated the White House counsel's office directed it not to provide the information.

Holder also said he would review why career prosecutors in Washington decided not to prosecute the former head of the department's Civil Rights Division.

An inspector general's report last month found that Bradley Schlozman, the former head of the division, misled lawmakers about whether he politicized hiring decisions.

The three former top aides to Bush — Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten — have declined to testify about the U.S. attorney firings on orders from Bush while he still was in office. Rove and Miers at the time were former aides, raising the question of whether White House aides no longer in government could be compelled to testify.

If Obama reverses Bush's policy, it would create a new legal issue: whether a former president's order against testifying would still be valid.

Holder also will likely review civil liberties issues including warrantless surveillance.

After a lengthy and heated debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks, Congress last year eased the rules under which the government could wiretap American phone and computer lines to listen for terrorists and spies.

Holder said he would reexamine a ruling by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey that immigrants facing deportation do not have a right to government-provided lawyers.

Holder said he understands the desire to expedite immigration court proceedings, but the Constitution also requires that proceedings be fair.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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