RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The lame duck Senate, back in session today after taking a recess for elections, has more work than it can possibly do. On that to-do list, a raff of President Obama's nominees who have to be approved by the Senate, including the right hand man at the Justice Department. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the race for confirmation votes could go down to the wire.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Think of the Senate calendar as a game of musical chairs. Lots of people and priorities racing around, hoping they'll find a seat when the music stops and Congress leaves town for the holidays. One of them is Jim Cole. The White House nominated him six months ago to be the Justice Department's deputy attorney general. Kind of like the chief operating officer for the entire department.
And Cole now holds a record he'd rather avoid. He's become the longest waiting deputy attorney general candidate since the Reagan administration. Washington lawyer Bill Jeffress says Cole has waited long enough.
Mr. BILL JEFFRESS (Attorney): The deputy attorney general is the person who actually runs the Justice Department, day to day; the person who is the decision maker on many, many criminal cases. And it's extremely important to have somebody who, not only has law enforcement experience, but who is a good manager.
JOHNSON: Shortly after Cole's nomination in May, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions criticized him for his work monitoring the fallen insurance giant AIG and for his approach to national security.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): He's written an op-ed, for example, that suggests that he believes the 9/11 attacks were criminal acts, not acts of war. He apparently he didn't do so well in his oversight with AIG. And so I do believe that this won't be just a coronation.
JOHNSON: Far from a coronation.�Even Sessions finally said he thought Cole would be confirmed back in July. Cole got through the Judiciary Committee that month on a party line vote. But then, as with so many other issues this year, he got stuck in the Senate.
The Justice Department's had to work around Cole's absence. If confirmed, he'd be one of a few officials authorized to sign surveillance warrants in national security cases. The delay is putting pressure on a small group of officials who can. Ken Wainstein ran the Justice Department's national security unit in the Bush years, and he says there's another cost.
Mr. KEN WAINSTEIN: The department is increasingly involved in counterterrorism related issues. And it's important that there be a strong voice at the table in those deputies' committee meetings on behalf of the Department of Justice. And that voice is strongest when it comes from a presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed deputy attorney general.
JOHNSON: A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told NPR Reid wants to push ahead on as many nominations as possible. But he said they have a long list of things to do and not a lot of time to do them. Nearly two dozen federal judges are waiting for Senate votes too. Nan Aron runs the Alliance for Justice. She's lobbying for movement on Mr. Obama's judicial nominees. And Aron says the numbers tell a bleak story.
Ms. NAN ARON (Alliance for Justice): Bush had twice as many judges confirmed than Obama at this moment in time and President Clinton had three times as many judicial nominees confirmed, so this situation has reached crisis proportion.
JOHNSON: Although the White House and Senate Democrats say the law enforcement nominees remain a high priority, they're putting more weight behind Jack Lew. He's the candidate to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
Jim Cole at the Justice Department and 23 judge candidates are still waiting to hear whether they'll be left without a chair�when the music stops in the Senate in three weeks.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.