Holder Hearing Concludes, Features Fireworks and Praise

Posted January 15, 2009 at 7:00pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general wrapped up Thursday evening in much the same way that it went throughout its more than nine hours — largely polite discussions on specific policy and philosophical issues punctuated by sudden outbursts of fireworks set off by top Republicans.

Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), looking to keep nominee Eric Holder’s appearance before the committee limited to one day, refused to allow Republicans to continue their grilling on Friday, instead extending the panel’s third round of questioning well into the evening Thursday.

His decision to provide Republicans with extensive time in their final round came after an angry exchange between Leahy and ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) over the length of the hearing.

At one point, Leahy made a joke about Specter’s desire for more time for questions, prompting Specter to angrily declare, “I don’t think its funny, Mr. Chairman. I don’t think its funny.”

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) appeared to try and mediate between the two, saying Republicans wanted “the same consideration that Democrats were given during the Gonzales hearings,” referring to Specter’s decision to give Democrats extra time to question President George W. Bush’s former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during his confirmation hearing.

A clearly exasperated Leahy ultimately agreed to provide further time, but not without first taking a shot at the repeated questioning of Holder by Specter, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) over his role in several controversial pardons while he was at the Justice Department at the end of the Clinton administration.

“We can sit here asking the same questions over and over and over again, which doesn’t accomplish anything for anybody,” Leahy said as Republicans began their third round of questions.

Specter, for the first time during the hearings, raised the issue of Holder’s opposition to appointing a special counsel to look into former Vice President Al Gore’s fundraising activities while Holder served as the deputy attorney general.

As the ranking member grilled Holder on his decision, Leahy interrupted Specter, ostensibly to say he had gone over his time but also to provide Holder with an opportunity to say that internal Clinton administration critics of the Gore decision are supporting his nomination.

The interruption rankled Specter. “I would appreciate it, Mr. Chairman, if my line of questioning isn’t interrupted,” he growled.

When Holder apologized, Specter snapped back that, “I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to him,” motioning toward Leahy. “The chairman has all the time to make any comments he wants. He runs the place,” he said.

Specter then went on the attack against Holder, charging that his belief that an independent counsel was not needed in the Gore case “raises questions about your fitness for the job” and suggesting that if it had been someone other than Gore at the center of the case, Holder would have raised objections.

The attacks clearly got to Holder, who countered Specter’s charges with a warning that he would not stand for his integrity as a lawyer to be questioned. “You’re getting close to a line … You’re getting close to questioning my integrity, and that’s not appropriate. That’s not fair, and I won’t accept that.”

Then, it was back to the fighting between Leahy and Specter, when, during a lull in Specter’s questioning, Leahy seemed to begin moving on to the next questioner. “Mr. Chairman, I’m not finished yet,” Specter said, and Leahy angrily shot back, “Well then finish your questions.”

The evening session was much like the afternoon and morning, with Specter, Grassley and others providing most of the fireworks, while the bulk of the questions from Republicans and Democrats alike stuck to policy issues.

Republicans largely focused on Holder’s time in the Clinton administration in their attacks.

Cornyn repeatedly questioned Holder’s decision to recommend that Clinton pardon a group of Puerto Rican terrorists from the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known as FALN.

Holder largely sidestepped those questions, saying that given the new realities after 9/11, he would have handled the pardon question differently. “I would not have ended up in the same place” if the pardon request had occurred after those attacks, he said.

Cornyn also went to great lengths to try to force Holder into either agreeing to the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique or to agree that he would rather allow “tens of thousands of Americans” to die from a terrorist attack by not waterboarding a suspect.

Holder repeatedly rebutted the question, maintaining that waterboarding is torture and arguing that it is not an effective technique to gather intelligence.

“I’m not at all certain that waterboarding somebody, torturing somebody, whatever [term] you want to use, is going to produce the intelligence you want,” he said.

At one point, Cornyn appeared to become frustrated with Holder’s refusal to take his bait and answer the hypothetical waterboarding question directly. “I know you don’t like my hypothetical,” Cornyn said.

“The hypothetical is fine, it’s the premise I don’t like,” Holder countered.

Specter also questioned Holder’s answers to the panel on his role in the Clinton-era pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich.

Republicans have accused Holder of recommending that Rich hire former White House counsel Jack Quinn as his lawyer, and of later recommending that Quinn take Rich’s case directly to the White House rather than the Department of Justice, where Holder served as deputy attorney general.

But Holder repeatedly dismissed those charges as false. “I did not recommend Mr. Quinn. … I never told Quinn to go to the White House with the pardon application,” Holder told the Judiciary panel.

Specter accused Holder of asking Justice Department Pardons Attorney Roger Adams to redo his report on the FALN pardon request to give himself “cover” to support the pardons.

But Holder rejected that characterization. “I was not asking for cover, I was asking for him to do his job,” Holder said, adding that he was not satisfied with the quality of the report.

Likewise, Specter pointed to a series of conversations Holder had with Rich’s attorneys and others on the pardon, and asked whether he stood by his earlier characterization of his knowledge of the case as a “passing acquaintance.”

Although Holder stuck to his previous statements, Specter dismissed his answers. “That doesn’t sound like a passing acquaintance to me,” he said.

Earlier in the day, under questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Holder refused to commit to not pursuing criminal charges against Vice President Dick Cheney and Justice Department officials over the terrorist surveillance program.

“Senator, no one is above the law. We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law and let that take us where it will,” Holder said, although he did concede that neither he nor Obama “want to criminalize policy differences.”

But despite several rounds of afternoon rhetorical fisticuffs between Holder and some Republicans, his reception was largely free of partisan fireworks. Republicans generally stayed on either parochial issues — such as Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) repeated questions on gun rights — or would use only a portion of their time to attack Holder.

Likewise, while Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) returned to the question of the Rich pardon, he spent the bulk of his time on home-state complaints, like how moving detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas would have a detrimental effect on the base’s primary mission.

Indeed, a number of Republicans openly praised Holder. Hatch during the second session of questions praised Holder’s handling of the inquiries at the hearing, saying, “You’ve acquitted yourself well. First of all I support you … I look forward to you being confirmed.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lauded his nomination, saying, “that this president chose you speaks very highly of you.”

After Holder’s answer to Graham’s questions about whether the United States is at war with terrorists, Graham quipped, “I’m almost ready to vote for you right now.”