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Holder May Face Grilling At Confirmation

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.