Even as Senate Democrats on Tuesday softened demands that the White House provide thousands of documents in advance of a hearing to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general, they warned that it remained highly improbable that a vote on his installation would occur before the October recess.
The White House has asked Democrats to complete the confirmation process by Oct. 8 — a date on which Democrats said they are unlikely to meet.
“I think setting a date is a serious mistake,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said following his Tuesday meeting with Mukasey. Schumer, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, argued that while he does not believe long delays will be likely, lawmakers and Mukasey alike need time to prepare for confirmation hearings, so patience is needed.
Schumer also offered optimism that a deal can be struck for the release of documents relating to the U.S. attorneys scandal before hearings begin — despite a categorical rejection by the White House on Tuesday that the two issues be connected.
While Schumer argued that he doesn’t “think throwing down gauntlets on either side is going to accomplish anything,” he said he believes an agreement could be reached that would satisfy Democrats while allowing the nomination to go forward.
“Let’s hope things get worked out” so that no delays are needed, Schumer said.
Similarly, Senate Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that Democrats were unlikely to hold up hearings over the document issue. “I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker for us to start [hearings], but if it’s going to proceed quickly … we’re going to need cooperation,” Durbin said.
Durbin’s and Schumer’s comments come in stark contrast to statements by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and other Democrats on Monday, who warned a massive document dump by the White House would be needed before hearings could get under way.
Mukasey began meeting with key Senators on Tuesday and will continue to make the rounds on Capitol Hill today. Sources said the White House is aiming to deliver all of the former New York judge’s paperwork to lawmakers by the week’s end, a move that could all but eliminate any procedural hurdles to the holding of confirmation hearings.
Still, Senate Democrats were keeping publicly coy about how quickly they would begin vetting Mukasey’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee. Leahy, who met with him Tuesday morning, would only say he would hold hearings at “the appropriate time.”
“I begin this process with hope and optimism,” Leahy said after meeting with Mukasey. “The last thing any of us want is to be disappointed in those hopes.”
Leahy took a tough line Monday morning when Mukasey was initially nominated as the Bush administration’s next attorney general, insisting that before he could be confirmed, the White House must provide thousands of pages of documents related to the Justice Department’s role in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and the domestic wiretapping program. Leahy made similar statements earlier, when it seemed likely that Bush would tap a more controversial candidate in former Solicitor General Ted Olson.
But on Tuesday, Leahy, along with other Democrats, struck a decidedly warmer tone, suggesting a meeting of the minds. Leahy said he had been in discussions with White House counsel Fred Fielding, the administration’s point man on the release of the documents.
“We don’t need all the materials — only certain things that will be specific to this,” Leahy said. “I am encouraged we will get the materials we need.”
Leahy is expected to discuss the documents issue with Fielding again today, Schumer said.
Mukasey still faces no open objections from any Senator in either party, and many predict an overwhelming confirmation vote looms. Even Democrats privately acknowledge they would have difficulty blocking Mukasey since it was Schumer who originally floated his fellow New Yorker as a prospective consensus choice for the Bush administration.
What’s more, many Senate Democrats have argued it is in the country’s best interest to get the Justice Department back on solid footing on the heels of Alberto Gonzales’ tenure — one that was marked by conflict and controversy. The agency also has been dogged by rumors of low morale among employees and questions over vacancies in other key senior-level positions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Tuesday suggested that while obtaining key answers from the White House related to warrantless wiretapping and the prosecutor firings is key, it is more important to install a leader at the embattled agency.
“That’s the top priority — that’s exactly right,” Feinstein said.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have warned against a protracted fight for documents in the face of an otherwise consensus candidate. GOP Senators argued that the average period for confirming an attorney general is three and a half weeks, a timeline that easily should be met with Mukasey at a time when the country is at war and facing critical judicial matters.
“That’s an appropriate guidepost for whether we’re going to be effective at working in a bipartisan way toward a fair process and a timely hearing, or whether this is going to be more of a political exercise,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
“There’s no reason to delay this nomination,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “There shouldn’t be any reason he can’t be confirmed by the October recess.”
That timeline, however, remains uncertain. Democratic sources said that even if the White House delivers his background data by week’s end, there are just two weeks remaining before Senators leave on Oct. 5 for a weeklong break.
That leaves little time to review the record and his background, hold hearings and schedule a Senate vote, sources said. “It’s all but impossible to imagine that we can move that quickly,” said one Democratic Senate aide.