Holder May Face Grilling At Confirmation

Attorney General-designate Eric Holder faces the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday at his confirmation hearing. Republican committee members say they will challenge Holder on his involvement in controversial pardons by President Clinton, but analysts expect him to be confirmed without much trouble.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There were confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill today for three high level positions in the Obama administration. Retired General Eric Shinseki, who's been selected to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, met with a friendly reception from senators. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the nominee for secretary of agriculture and perspective EPA chief Lisa Jackson also had a pretty easy time at their hearings. ARI SHAPIRO: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy had a conference call for reporters yesterday. He brought with him some Republican former congressmen who have endorsed Eric Holder for attorney general. When Leahy asked for reporters' questions, the first was, what's with the full-court press?

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman): That's a valid question. Normally, I would have expected it to be just an easy nomination because everybody knows Eric Holder and everybody knows how extraordinary qualified he is.

SHAPIRO: But it is not an easy nomination. Leahy's Republican counterpart, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, delivered a speech on the Senate floor last week. Specter listed Holder's academic and professional accomplishments and then said...

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): But aside from these qualifications on Mr. Holder's resume, there is also the issue of character.

SHAPIRO: Specter asked whether Holder has the stature and courage to tell the president no. Under President Bush, Democrats repeatedly accused Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of failing to tell the president no. Republicans plan to ask tomorrow about instances when Holder was deputy attorney general and sided with President Clinton over career prosecutors.

For example, Holder supported granting clemency to some members of a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group. And Holder oversaw the president's last minute decision to pardon fugitive billionaire Mark Rich.

Republicans may also push Holder on work he did at a private law firm. He represented Chiquita on charges the company paid-off Columbian terrorists. And in 2004, he briefly had a contract with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for some legal work. That contract was canceled before the governor was impeached and before any money changed hands.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): I think it's fine to ask the question, but to suggest that his nomination as attorney general depends on it strikes me as a stretch.

SHAPIRO: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. At confirmation hearings for the last attorney general, Whitehouse pointedly asked about the definition of torture.

Senator WHITEHOUSE: I think we do have to get that question answered both to protect people going forward, so that they know that they're acting within the law, and so the people who may have acted pursuant to Bush legal opinions that were faulty, to know what their real legal situation is.

SHAPIRO: Republicans may want different kinds of assurances on national security. Rachel Brand ran the Office of Legal Policy at Justice and shepherded President Bush's Supreme Court nominees through confirmation hearings.

Ms. RACHEL BRAND (Director, Office of Legal Policy): I think what the Republicans might be looking for from him is some guarantee that he is going to make it his first priority to protect America and that he's not going to cave-in to those who would, you know, like to see those sorts of protections weakened.

SHAPIRO: Holder has been critical of some Bush administration national security policies. All three of President Bush's deputy attorneys general wrote letters urging Congress to confirm Holder. That includes Jim Comey, who was the chief prosecutor in the Marc Rich case. Former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty called Holder one of the most qualified attorney general nominees in the nation's history.

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (Former Deputy Attorney General): Having been a U.S. attorney, a judge, a deputy attorney general - and even his private practice experience is very helpful in being able to make good judgments as an attorney general.

SHAPIRO: McNulty's letter to Congress said, we learn more from our mistakes than our triumphs. By that measure, Holder supporters hope tomorrow's hearing is not much of a learning experience. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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Battle Brewing Over Holder's Clinton-Era Decisions

Attorney general nominee Eric Holder speaks as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stand by Dec. 1 i i

Attorney general nominee Eric Holder speaks as President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stand by at a news conference Dec. 1 in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Attorney general nominee Eric Holder speaks as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stand by Dec. 1

Attorney general nominee Eric Holder speaks as President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stand by at a news conference Dec. 1 in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Despite strong bipartisan support from the legal and law enforcement community, U.S. attorney general nominee Eric Holder can expect some roughing up Thursday when his confirmation hearing opens before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has promised to quiz Holder about his role in decisions made by the Clinton Justice Department during the four years he was deputy attorney general — from President Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, to clemency and sentence reductions granted to members of a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group.

But committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has launched a full-court press to beat back criticism of President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be the nation's top law enforcement official.

On Tuesday, Leahy challenged Specter to justify his objections in light of the unwavering support he gave to Alberto Gonzales after President Bush nominated the now-discredited former attorney general to the post.

"If [Specter] could strongly support Mr. Gonzales, who turned out to be a disaster as attorney general, I would think that he would be very happy to support Eric Holder," Leahy said. He later referred obliquely to Specter as a "spear carrier" for Gonzales and pondered whether it was coincidence that Specter's criticisms of Holder echoed those of GOP political operative Karl Rove.

Democrats Line Up GOP Supporters

Leahy was joined on Tuesday's call by two prominent Republicans: former Sen. John Danforth, who also served as U.N. ambassador, and former three-term Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who once headed the Drug Enforcement Agency and was a top official at the Department of Homeland Security. Both gave Holder unqualified endorsements.

They are among a growing circle of Republicans who have gotten behind Holder. Their ranks include former Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who remains a committee member; former Attorney General William Barr, appointed by President George H.W. Bush; and Victoria Toensing, who was a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh is scheduled to testify on Holder's behalf Thursday, as are the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police and the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

It is telling that Democrats have worked to line up such significant public and across-the-aisle support for Holder, who would be the first African-American attorney general. His nomination at first blush appeared to be on a glide path, even despite early criticism about his role in the Rich pardon. (In an opinion to then-President Clinton, Holder said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on the controversial pardon, which the president executed just hours before leaving office.)

Republicans Prepare To Grill Holder

Those who know Holder from his days at the Justice Department describe him as an unflappable, fair leader whose credentials — prosecutor, judge, criminal defense attorney, deputy attorney general — make him, on paper, better qualified than at least the past three attorneys general. Holder has been in private practice since 2001 and served as an adviser to the Obama campaign.

But the nomination's course was clearly altered last week, when Specter delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor in which he called into question Holder's ability to "say no" to his boss if law and judgment dictate.

Specter questioned why Holder, as deputy attorney general, opposed naming a special prosecutor to look into campaign finance allegations that then-Vice President Al Gore was raising money in the White House. And the senator took aim at Holder's role in securing clemency in 1999 for members of Puerto Rican separatist groups, including four members convicted of being involved in robbing a Wells Fargo office in Connecticut of $7.2 million. Some of that money was traced to Cuba, according to published reports. In all, 16 radical Puerto Rican nationalists belonging to two groups involved in bombings, murders and robberies received offers of clemency that Holder recommended.

"The actions of Deputy Attorney General Holder were very extensive in what eventuated in the granting of clemency," Specter said.

Clemency was opposed at the time not just by Specter, but also, he noted, by Leahy, as well as the FBI and two U.S. attorney's offices. Many critics saw it as a political move by Clinton intended to help his wife's standing with the Puerto Rican community in New York, where she was running for Senate.

Republican witnesses include two with personal interest in the Puerto Rican clemency issue: Joseph Connor, the son of a man killed in a 1975 New York City bombing attributed to the violent Puerto Rican nationalists, and Richard Hahn, a former FBI agent who spent more than a dozen years investigating one of the two radical groups. A third GOP witness is a pro-gun attorney.

Leahy's office Tuesday night announced more witnesses to counteract testimony expected from the Republican panel. Leahy's addition includes Frances Townsend, a former Homeland Security adviser to President Bush.

Leahy charged that Specter and others may be trying to use Holder's confirmation as a "backdoor way to go after Bill Clinton."

"Don't make this a hearing at which you're trying to get to Bill Clinton, who's no longer in office," Leahy said.

Leahy defended Holder's independence, noting that he supported an expansion of special prosecutor Ken Starr's investigation of Clinton and oversaw the corruption prosecution of powerful Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.

But with his most public acts stemming from his time as deputy to Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, Holder will have some tough questions to answer.

Still, no one is predicting that his nomination will fail to pass out of Leahy's committee with a recommendation for approval by the Senate.

Specter says, however, that Holder will "have his day in court, so to speak."

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