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GOP Senators Ready To Grill Holder During Hearing

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today could bring a very contentious confirmation hearing for one of Barack Obama's Cabinet nominees, other ones. Eric Holder is in line to be attorney general, and Republicans have made it clear that they're not going to let him sail through. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Spoiler alert: Unless something very unexpected happens, Eric Holder will be the next attorney general. The votes to confirm him are there. That does not mean his confirmation hearing will be easy. On this program last week, the Senate's top Republican was asked whether any Obama nominee would face difficult questions at confirmation. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell replied...

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, January 9, 2009)

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I think the attorney general nominee, Mr. Holder, has got serious questions to respond to.

SHAPIRO: And a few days before that, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a speech about Holder on the Senate floor. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter raised question about whether Holder can be independent from the White House.

(Soundbite of speech, January 6, 2009)

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Ranking Republican, Senate Committee on the Judiciary): Sometimes it is more important for the attorney general to have the stature and the courage to say no.

SHAPIRO: Specter's written statement drew even more pointed comparisons between Holder and disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The statement said, quote, "I am convinced many of Attorney General Gonzales's missteps were caused by his eagerness to please the White House. Similarly, when Mr. Holder was serving as deputy attorney general to President Clinton, some of his actions raised concerns about his ability to maintain his independence from the president," end quote. Now, in the legal world, you do not want to be compared to Alberto Gonzales. He was driven out of office in a scandal of politicized hireling and firing.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Rhode Island, Democrat; Senate Committee on the Judiciary): I know Alberto Gonzales. I've questioned Alberto Gonzales. Eric Holder is no Alberto Gonzales.

SHAPIRO: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He pointed out that as deputy attorney general, Holder authorized Ken Starr to continue investigating President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And as Washington, D.C.'s U.S. attorney, Holder indicted the powerful Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: So, you know, the notion that this is a guy who rolls over for the politically convenient decision is totally belied by the entire span of his career.

SHAPIRO: Republicans have been looking most intently at pardon decisions Holder made as deputy attorney general. There was the pardon from billionaire fugitive Marc Rich on President Clinton's last day in office, and Holder recommended that President Clinton grant clemency to members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist group FALN. Career prosecutors objected to both those decisions. Congress grilled Holder about both those incidents years ago. They accused him of taking politically convenient positions to further his career. Paul McNulty was deputy attorney general under President Bush.

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (Deputy Attorney General, George W. Bush Administration): I think having gone through that, he is going to be better prepared to face those challenges on a day-to-day basis.

SHAPIRO: McNulty wrote a letter urging Congress to confirm Holder. So did all of the people who served as deputy attorney general under President Bush. The list includes Jim Comey, who was the chief prosecutor in the Marc Rich case. Republicans also plan to ask about some of the work Holder did as a private attorney. He represented Chiquita on charges that the company paid protection money to Colombian terrorists. And he won a legal services contract from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is now being impeached. That contract was cancelled before Holder got any money out of it. Rachel Brand is a veteran of these kinds of battles. When she worked at Justice, she led both of President Bush's Supreme Court nominees through confirmation hearings.

Ms. RACHEL BRAND (Former Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Policy, George W. Bush Administration): I think what this is about is laying down a marker that while there Democrats tried to tar the current DOJ as much as they could, you know, the Republicans are going to be watching the incoming DOJ and holding it to account at well. I think it's a little bit of that.

SHAPIRO: And so, do you think the talk about this being a bloody confirmation hearing is overblown?

Ms. BRAND: Look, I think bloody confirmation hearings happen when there's a thought that the person could be defeated or there are seriously controversial issues. Now, he's going to be asked a lot of uncomfortable questions about things like Marc Rich, but he'll have to come up with a good way of dealing with that. And as long as he can do that in a way that looks honest, credible, respectable, I think he'll be OK.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News. 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.