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Mukasey Faces Slow Sailing

The White House on Monday rejected demands by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that the administration release thousands of documents related to the U.S. attorneys scandal and other Justice Department controversies before hearings begin on President Bush’s nomination of Michael Mukasey as the new attorney general.

A showdown between Leahy and President Bush over largely procedural matters could turn what is widely seen as a relatively noncontroversial nomination into a political lightning rod for both parties.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said that while White House counsel Fred Fielding has indicated he is willing to work with Leahy to resolve his concerns with those controversies, the administration will not negotiate unrelated items as part of Mukasey’s confirmation process.

“Fred Fielding has long been willing to meet with the Senators, and he’s shown a willingness to be open to accommodation,” Perino said Monday. “We believe, however, that the confirmation of the attorney general is separate from any document requests regarding matters that have nothing to do with Judge Mukasey. The two are not linked, and we are not supportive of any deal-making on a nomination.”

Leahy said he discussed the nomination — and his demands for White House documents — with Fielding on Sunday and said Fielding had indicated some resolution to his concerns could be found. “I believe he understands that there are certain materials that we’ve requested from the White House, requested for some time now, that will be necessary so that we can do a thorough deliberation,” Leahy said on the floor.

“They’re not going to agree to everything I’ve asked for but we’ll work out something,” Leahy told reporters Monday.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — who also sits on the Judiciary Committee and initially floated Mukasey as a replacement for former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — agreed the White House should provide lawmakers with documents on Gonzales’ tenure.

“With respect to the turmoil that has been all too common at the Justice Department of late, I hope that this nomination is a sign that the White House will quickly reach agreement on providing documents and witnesses in connection with our investigation. I urge Fred Fielding to sit down immediately with Chairman Leahy and work that out; the sooner the better,” Schumer said, adding, “That is what would be best for the investigation and it would assure a much less bumpy confirmation process.”

But Republicans rejected the notion that the release of documents should be connected to confirmation hearings.

“I would hope not to get bogged down with preconditions to his nomination,” Judiciary ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said. “It is very important to act promptly, not with undue haste … but to act promptly and not become snarled in the requests which are outstanding.”

Specter said dragging out confirmation hearings would be ill-advised, given the state of disarray in the Department of Justice and the number of outstanding vacancies at the highest levels. Specter agreed that important questions remain over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and the warrantless wiretapping program but that Mukasey’s nomination shouldn’t get caught in the crossfire.

Although the White House seemed to effectively neutralize Democrats’ attempts to make partisan hay out of the attorney general nomination, it didn’t do much to ensure a quick and seamless confirmation process. Nor did either party view the selection of Mukasey as a sign that the Bush administration is now going to start seeking out compromise with Congress on other issues in its final 15 months.

For their part, Senate Democrats already were making clear Monday that they still expect the Bush administration to answer their outstanding questions about the embattled Justice Department before moving ahead with the Mukasey’s confirmation. And Democrats quickly dismissed any suggestion that Mukasey could win final confirmation by Oct. 8.

“It’s very difficult to imagine that happening,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “There’s still a process that needs to be followed. We’re interested in moving as quickly as possible, but we’re not going to be rushed into anything.”

Schumer, who originally floated Mukasey to the administration, offered largely positive remarks about his qualifications and integrity as a former judge. But Schumer said Senators still expect the outstanding issues at Justice be resolved and — like most Democrats — wouldn’t say for sure whether he would ultimately support the nomination.

“I think I am open-minded and hopeful that he will satisfy the concerns that I have and other Democrats have and he will become a consensus nominee,” Schumer said. “That’s certainly within the ballpark, but it’s not a done deal yet by any stretch of the imagination.”

But that rhetoric aside, neither Democrats nor Republicans expect Mukasey will hit any serious roadblocks — once hearings begin. Senators in both parties on Monday gave him favorable reviews, and no one indicated any objections to his nomination.

“Unless he doesn’t come back with a clean bill of health, he’s going to get overwhelming support,” predicted one senior Republican Senate aide. “I think his chances right now are pretty good.”

Like the Democrats, several Senate sources said Republicans sent the White House clear indications that they weren’t interested in another bitter fight over the attorney general’s office. While they widely supported another reported frontrunner, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, GOP Senators didn’t hide the fact that they were happy to have a less incendiary pick.

“I don’t think our guys had the stomach for an attorney general fight after the Gonzales’ rigmarole,” said the senior GOP aide.

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