Monday, December 29, 2008

holder's hearing will

Holder's hearing might be rocky
GOP could grill Cabinet nominee
Republicans are likely to press Eric Holder about Clinton-era decisions.
By Scott Helman

Globe Staff / December 29, 2008
With Barack Obama anxious to take office, the public eager for fresh leadership, and the economy demanding urgent attention, the Senate is likely to defer to the president-elect and swiftly approve his Cabinet nominees, congressional aides and political analysts say.
But there will be one prominent exception: The confirmation hearing for Eric Holder, Obama's pick for attorney general, promises to be bruising, with Republicans determined to explore Holder's role in controversial pardons under President Clinton, his views on gun rights, and his involvement in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy returned to his homeland by Clinton's Justice Department.
"You're probably only going to have one truly horrendous confirmation; that's always the case," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who served on the White House staffs of presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. "In this case, it is clearly the attorney general-designate, Eric Holder."
The Senate must consent to presidents' Cabinet appointments, but it rarely stands in the way. The chamber has formally rejected less than 2 percent of nominees since 1789; occasionally a president has had to pull a nomination in the face of criticism, as Clinton did in 1993 when an initial choice for attorney general, Zoe Baird, came under fire for hiring illegal immigrants.
Barring some unexpected revelation, Obama may have even more clout than usual because the Democrats picked up additional Senate seats in last month's election.
He drew heavily on Congress for his Cabinet nominees, whose former colleagues will be loath to go after aggressively. And he is benefiting from broad public support and a universally acknowledged urgency about an orderly transition to power.
So while some senators may, for example, want to deeply examine the involvement of treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, the need for him to start working right away may be paramount.
"If you hold up Tim Geithner and the stock market falls 500 points, is it your fault?" said Forrest Maltzman, a political science professor at George Washington University.
There are some potential friction spots as Obama's Cabinet picks make the rounds on Capitol Hill. A federal grand jury is reportedly investigating a financial firm's donations to commerce secretary nominee Bill Richardson, and Hilda Solis, Obama's pick for labor secretary, could be challenged over her support for a controversial union-backed workplace organizing measure.
Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama's choice for secretary of state, is likely to be pressed on her husband's business and philanthropic ties abroad, but she is expected to be approved with ease. Indeed, Richard Lugar of Indiana - the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hold a hearing on Clinton - has already signaled his approval.
"He wants the national security team in place as quickly as possible," said Lugar spokesman Mark Hayes.
But Holder - a partner at a Washington law firm and a former judge, federal prosecutor, and deputy attorney general under Clinton - appears to be the Republicans' prime target, and both sides are busy preparing for a tough grilling.
Holder's hearing is scheduled to begin Jan. 15, after Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, agreed to Republican requests to move the date back, to allow more time to check Holder's record.
Judiciary Committee staff members have pulled more than 150 boxes from their archives and have been poring over internal memos and transcripts from Holder's tenure at the Department of Justice.
Republicans have also asked the Justice Department and the Clinton Presidential Library for documents relating to, among other things, Clinton's impeachment, former vice president Al Gore's fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign, the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, and the pardon of financier Marc Rich.
And on Dec. 17, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Holder asking him to account for "apparent omissions" in his questionnaire, including work on gaming that Holder did in 2004 for Rod Blagojevich, the beleaguered Illinois governor.
One senior Republican Senate aide, who agreed to discuss Holder's nomination only on the condition of anonymity, said GOP senators are not necessarily looking to derail his appointment, but to force a careful review. "No one on our side wants to filibuster or slow down this nominee; that's not the issue," the aide said.
Holder will surely be pressed hard on the pardon of Rich, who faced charges of tax fraud and making illegal oil deals with Iran and whose former wife had been a Clinton donor. Clinton pardoned Rich in the closing hours of his presidency after Holder's recommendation had been "neutral leaning towards favorable." Holder has since said that his judgment was a mistake.
Some Republicans and analysts say Holder may also be pressed on his past support for gun control measures. In January 2008, he joined several former Justice Department officials in urging the Supreme Court to uphold Washington's ban on handguns. (The court later struck it down.)
Obama's transition team is helping prepare him for the hearing, and Holder is rehearsing his defenses. On Dec. 22, Leahy released more than four-dozen letters of support for Holder's confirmation from a variety of individuals and groups, including James B. Comey, the prosecutor in the Rich case, who said Holder "knows and loves the department and has demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law across an entire career."
An Obama transition official, granted anonymity to address strategy, said that Holder, if challenged on whether in light of the Rich case he can be trusted to display political independence from the president, will cite two high-profile example of him breaking with party leaders.
The first, according to the transition official, was Holder's prosecution, as US attorney for the District of Columbia, of former US representative Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat and House Ways and Means Committee chairman who served prison time for misusing taxpayer money. The second, the official said, was Holder's support, while deputy attorney general, of broadening independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigations into Clinton's activities.
Part of the opposing party's goal in tough questioning, analysts say, is to take the incoming president down a peg, to force him to spend political capital early in the term, thereby lessening the capital he can spend on policy battles down the road.
"If you can burn it up on confirmations and make the president spend the capital getting Eric Holder confirmed as attorney general and things like that, politically, from the Republicans' perspective, that's a win," said Maltzman.
But Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, said the GOP has to be careful in this political environment not to push too hard.
Scott Helman can be reached at
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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