President Bush appeared close Tuesday to selecting a new attorney general, government officials said, weighing candidates who could survive a rocky confirmation process after months of scandal at the Justice Department.
A decision could be announced as soon as this week, but a Bush administration official warned that Bush had not yet made his pick.
"I'm sure it's a difficult decision for the president," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that will conduct a confirmation hearing. "I understand they're getting close, and I'm sure we'll hear something soon," he told reporters Tuesday.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who also sits on the panel, said he spoke late last week with White House counsel Fred Fielding about the choice. "He told me when they were getting very, very close, he'd call me," said Schumer, D-N.Y. "He hasn't yet."
Among frequently mentioned names for the job is former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, whose arguments before the Supreme Court were instrumental in the president's victory in the contested 2000 election. Another name touted for the post is former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger, who also worked on the 2000 legal fight and worked at the Justice Department during the administration of former President George H.W. Bush.
Another former deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson, is the preferred candidate of many Justice Department staffers but is believed to not want the job, according to people close to the decision-making process.
Olson and Terwilliger declined to comment Tuesday, and Thompson did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The announcement will all but certainly be made soon, as Friday marks the last day on the job for resigning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general until the Senate confirms Gonzales' replacement.
Gonzales leaving amid inquiry
Gonzales is leaving amid a congressional investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys — a probe that recently shifted its focus onto whether the attorney general lied to Congress about the ousters and the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program. An internal Justice Department inquiry also is looking at whether Gonzales misled lawmakers.
The investigations have demoralized many career prosecutors and tainted the Justice Department's long-cherished independent image. It's a climate similar to that when former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh took over for resigning Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Meese had come under criminal investigation for corruption, resigning after the probe ended without his being charged.
"Most of us in public life thrive on challenges, and this will certainly be a challenge," Thornburgh said in an interview. "With a department with a low ebb, the incoming guy has a chance to be a real hero."
"Somebody's got to be in charge who's willing to take on the tough battles," Thornburgh said.
The first tough battle will be winning Senate confirmation.
Olson, Terwilliger and Thompson all are conservative Bush loyalists who will be asking for the blessing of the Democratic-led Senate. In turn, senators will seek assurance the new attorney general won't be in lockstep with the White House — a frequent criticism of Gonzales, who was Bush's personal lawyer in Texas before joining the administration as the White house counsel.
"That will make confirmation hearings a combination of jumping back and forth between the frying pan of maintaining some loyalty to the White House and the fire of pledging a fresh house-cleaning to the Senate Judiciary Committee," said University of Baltimore Law School professor Charles Tiefer, a former congressional lawyer.
Coming into a difficult position
Sen. Arlen Specter, top Republican on the Senate panel, said finding someone who wants the attorney general post might be hard in the messy aftermath of the Gonzales era. Indeed, several potential candidates who asked to not be named said in interviews with The Associated Press that they did not want the job.
"The problem is likely to arise in the context of a great many requests pending" from congressional committees investigating the Justice Department, said Specter, R-Pa.
Moreover, the scandal and its wake have wiped out more than a dozen senior Justice Department officials, stretching thin the remaining employees with only 16 months on the job to offer potential recruits.
"The next attorney general takes over a department near collapse, and a set of pressures almost impossible to reconcile," Tiefer said.
Thornburgh offered a more optimistic approach.
"There are a lot of people who search out the tough jobs," he said. "Because if they do a credible job, then all the more to their credit."