Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday vowed to block any effort by President Bush to nominate former Solicitor General Ted Olson to become the next attorney general, while Democrats promised a protracted and politically bruising fight regardless of the nominee.
“Ted Olson will not be confirmed by the Senate,” Reid said on Wednesday, adding, “I intend to do everything I can to prevent him from being confirmed as the next attorney general.”
Although the White House has remained mum on whom Bush will tap as his nominee to replace retiring Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, sources close to the administration and GOP Senators said Olson appears to be the leading candidate. Bush is expected to announce his choice in the coming days, with most observers predicting Monday to avoid conflicting with the Rosh Hashanah holiday this week.
Republican lawmakers said Democratic opposition to Olson — who headed up Bush’s legal team in the divisive days following the 2000 election — is expected. “That’s predictable, I think,” Judiciary Committee member John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on Wednesday. “They’re going to oppose any nominee of this president.”
Regardless of whom Bush picks, Democratic Senators already are preparing for a protracted fight over the next attorney general. Last week, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that before any confirmation hearings can begin, the White House must answer a series of outstanding questions over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and the Bush administration’s domestic warrantless wiretapping program.
Those issues notwithstanding, Olson clearly isn’t the Democrats’ choice, and key Senators indicated he would have a tough time winning their nod. Olson only received the support of two Democratic Senators — Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and former Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia — when he won confirmation to be solicitor general in 2001 in a relatively narrow 51-47 vote.
“He’s not a no-go, but we have a whole lot of questions,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who led the fight against Gonzales. “He’s not the consensus nominee we envisioned.”
Another Judiciary member, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), agreed, saying the White House had the opportunity to choose “a statesman-like candidate” who could restore the reputation of the embattled agency. If Olson is their ultimate selection, he doesn’t fit that test.
“I don’t think Mr. Olson is dead on arrival by any means,” Whitehouse said. “He has a distinguished academic record and he’s held a number of important offices, but he’s not the type of candidate who can bind the country together.”
Democrats said they equally were bewildered over why the Bush administration — after months of defending Gonzales’ handling of the Justice Department — would want to re-engage in a battle over the next attorney general. Those Democratic Senators privately questioned why Bush wouldn’t look for a compromise pick by choosing a former or current GOP Senator.
None, however, has been on the short list of finalists for the post.
Leahy on Wednesday said that while he’s not interested in “handicapping different people,” he too believes Olson faces a tough road. He reiterated that his one piece of advice to the White House has been that it “would be a good time for the president to be a uniter, not a divider.”
“There are many people who could do that, of course. Mr. Olson isn’t one of them,” Leahy said.
Democrats this week also reiterated their decision to delay the start of any hearings on the nominee until the White House agrees to turn over thousands of pages of documents related to several oversight investigations of the Justice Department.
Those threats raised the hackles of Republicans, who accused Democrats of using perceived problems at the department as a political tool.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned against a protracted debate on Olson. “Democratic colleagues have repeatedly told us that the central concern in all this was the health and well-being of the Justice Department. Yet now they say they’re willing to hold up the new attorney general in exchange for more documents related to their fishing expedition — which, so far, has been long on fisherman and short on fish,” McConnell said.
Likewise, Cornyn argued that while Democratic opposition to Olson and a drawn-out nomination fight may play well with the party’s base, they could pay a price politically. “If they want to be responsible for leaving the Department of Justice for weeks on end without a leader, that’s something they will have to live with.”
Several Republicans, however, privately questioned the apparent decision to tap Olson, given the predictable Democratic opposition. “Why would they want to pick this fight?” one GOP lawmaker said Wednesday, noting Democrats already have made it clear they will use the hearings to bludgeon the administration over various issues.
Of course, Olson is not without Senate support, especially among Republican Judiciary Committee Senators, who view him as a highly qualified candidate with decades of experience. They also believe it is inappropriate for Democrats to demand that the next attorney general nominee answer questions about Gonzales’ tenure and his handling of the agency and its controversies.
“They shouldn’t blame the next attorney general for that,” argued Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), himself mentioned as a possible Gonzales successor. “I personally think it would be a really bad thing if Democrats fight a qualified nominee.”
With the battle lines drawn over a potential Olson nomination, another Senate judicial fight still looms over the nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The former Mississippi appellate court judge narrowly cleared the Judiciary Committee in July, but his fate before the full Senate remains unclear.
Several sources indicated that Southwick is continuing to make personal appeals for support among Senators, including meeting with Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). Southwick captured the support of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to advance out of the Judiciary panel.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who along with Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has helped lead the fight on behalf of Southwick, said on Tuesday that he continues to lobby on Southwick’s behalf.
“I’ve talked to several Senators about it,” Cochran said. “I think he has a reasonable good chance.”