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Republicans Hit Counsel Choice

Citing concerns over the selection of the House’s newest top legal officer, Republicans asserted Wednesday they were shut out of the selection process, a claim Democrats dismissed as simply untrue.

The dispute centers on newly appointed House General Counsel Irvin Nathan, known on Capitol Hill most recently for serving as senior counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the fired U.S. attorneys scandal. Nathan, at that time a senior partner at the firm Arnold & Porter, worked on a contract basis.

House Republicans, who asserted they were not included in the selection process, openly questioned Nathan’s appointment Wednesday, criticizing his work for the majority.

“I’m disappointed that the Democrats picked someone who was so partisan,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.

The House general counsel’s office is responsible for representing the interests of all House Members in matters tied to their official duties, without regard to political affiliations. But Republicans suggested Members may not feel confident about the office, noting Nathan’s most recent efforts focused on their own party.

“His actions are going to be watched very closely,” Smith said.

But Democrats dismissed the Republicans’ criticism as much ado about nothing, asserting that the minority was included in the process and had ample opportunity to review potential candidates.

“Irv Nathan was the best qualified candidate to represent and protect the interests of all House Members and all Members of Congress should examine his long and distinguished record,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Republicans had ample notice that he was a leading candidate and had an opportunity to interview him before the announcement. They declined then, but today, they seem to have forgotten that fact.”

Republicans acknowledge that they did receive a preliminary list of counsel candidates with Nathan’s name on it, but they still question whether he is too partisan for the post.

According to the House’s internal rules, the Office of the General Counsel is placed under the Speaker’s jurisdiction, although the selection requires the consultation of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, composed of the majority and minority leadership. There is no additional approval required by the full House.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) similarly praised Nathan, whose background includes stints at the Justice Department, the American Bar Association and the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he served as special minority counsel in 1981.

“We’re very impressed with him. He’s a great asset,” Conyers said. He added that while he did not recommend Nathan for the post, “I supported him.”

Since its establishment in the early 1970s, a handful of individuals have led the general counsel’s office, including some openly partisan appointees.

Nathan will replace Geraldine Gennet, who has served in the position since 1996, although she was not officially appointed to the office by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) until 1997.

The Georgia lawmaker’s first appointment to the office, former Nevada Secretary of State Cheryl Lau, served only one term as general counsel before returning to the state to run an unsuccessful campaign in the Republican House primary against now-Gov. Jim Gibbons (R), who ultimately won the seat. Lau also had served as secretary of the 1992 Republican National Convention and vice chair of the 1992 Republican National Platform Committee.

Upon Lau’s departure, Gennet, already working in the office, was promoted to acting general counsel. She previously had served as general counsel to the Metropolitan Police Department before coming to Capitol Hill.

Republicans, who returned to the minority in the 110th Congress for the first time in 12 years, assert that the appointment of Nathan is only the latest in a pattern of House officers who have been confirmed without minority input.

“The House counsel’s duty is to represent this institution and all of its Members fairly and objectively, so it’s hard to argue that a liberal hired gun fits the job description,” said a GOP leadership aide. In particular, Republicans also have taken aim at Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who is tasked with the operational and financial management of the House.

Republicans have criticized Beard for his promotion of a Green the Capitol Initiative, which they view as a liberal environmentalist effort, and for allowing a CAO aide to do work for the Natural Resources Committee’s Democratic staff.

“But don’t mistake the pattern here,” the GOP leadership aide continued. “Democrats are packing every institutional job in the House with activists and hired guns, and it starts with the CAO. Pretty soon we may have Greenpeace mowing the Capitol lawn and the American Vegan Association running the cafeterias.”

Under the chamber’s own rules, the CAO, along with the Clerk of the House, Sergeant-at-Arms and Chaplain, must be approved by a House vote, which Beard was earlier this year along with Clerk Lorraine Miller. Both Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Chaplin Daniel Coughlin, who initially were appointed under Republican majorities, were retained for additional terms in a House vote.