Quick Pace Planned for Nominations

Posted December 13, 2008 at 8:09am

Senate Democrats are preparing to move with extraordinary speed to confirm the Cabinet-level nominees of President-elect Barack Obama, with nearly all committees ready to schedule January hearings with an eye toward confirmation votes on Inauguration Day or soon after. Obama on Saturday named New York City housing commissioner Shaun Donovan as his pick to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That nomination will go through the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), although no timing has been announced. In general, Obama transition officials are hoping for rapid action on the floor, with the president-elect emphasizing his desire to “hit the ground running” as his administration takes over stewardship of two wars and an economy in meltdown. Congress returns Jan. 6, and the following two weeks before inauguration promise to feature a flood of Obama nominees making their way toward hearing rooms for debriefings by Senators. “Everyone agrees we want to move as quickly as possible,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. The aide noted that a Republican-controlled Senate confirmed seven of President George W. Bush’s nominees on Jan. 20, 2000, a time when there were no foreign policy emergencies and an economy that was only beginning a decline that does not match the current deterioration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is deferring to committee chairmen to set their own timetables. But the pressure to move — based on conditions and Obama’s eagerness to get started — is obvious. One hearing room that may avoid the early hubbub is Dirksen 224, the home of the Senate Judiciary panel. Judiciary Republicans say they need extra time to examine the record of attorney general nominee Eric Holder, and Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has asked Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to delay a proposed Jan. 8 session until Jan. 26. The Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which will interview Secretary of Homeland Security-designee and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) and Office of Management and Budget nominee Peter Orszag, will hold hearings for each in early January, according to a panel aide. Foreign Affairs is likely to bring secretary of State nominee Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and United Nations nominee Susan Rice before Jan. 20. Early hearings are also expected in the Finance Committee, which will interview Treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle and the trade representative choice. The Energy and Natural Resources panel’s examinations of the Energy and Interior nominees, and the Budget Committee’s interview of Orszag are also expected early. Other committees will also act promptly. But Judiciary panel Republicans, some of whom say they are generally respectful of Holder’s record, want to closely scrutinize his tenure as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. Not only do GOP panel members want to probe Holder’s involvement in the pardon of fugitive financier Mark Rich, but they also will take a look at other issues, such as Holder’s role in Clinton’s 1999 commutation of the sentences of members of the FALN, a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group. According to one knowledgeable GOP Senate aide, Judiciary staff has some 160 boxes of committee materials related to Holder and has reviewed only about a fourth of it. In addition, they have yet to receive Holder’s routine questionnaire and background materials, and the FBI has not completed its background check. An initial request to the Clinton presidential library for Holder-related materials had to be scaled back after library officials said it would be impossible to comply expeditiously. A request to the Bush Justice Department for materials has yet to yield documents, though both this and the Clinton library request were made only recently, the source notes. Republicans are being careful to avoid charges that they are politicizing the process of confirming Holder, who would be the country’s first African-American attorney general, saying they just want to carefully analyze his record. “In looking toward the hearing process, I am looking for a very constructive engagement to determine the qualifications of Mr. Holder,” Specter said a Dec. 10 statement on the Senate floor. “There is no intent on my part or on the part of any of my colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle to engage in partisan sniping.” But Democrats are questioning GOP appeals to delay the hearing, pointing out that Republicans have been aware for some time that Holder was the likely nominee. Indeed, Specter commented on the prospect during an interview on MSNBC on Nov. 19. “I would be prepared to move ahead very promptly with hearings,” he said at the time. Holder was nominated Dec. 1. One Senate Democratic aide suggested Holder has already been exhaustively scrutinized, having been confirmed by the Senate three times for positions in the past. The aide noted that the 2001 Rich pardon was a focus of extensive Congressional hearings, before which Holder testified.