President Barack Obama hasn’t named a replacement for outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., but that future nominee can count on a contentious Senate confirmation process, whether it happens in the November lame-duck session or next year.
Attorney general nominations and confirmations — like everything in Washington — have become highly partisan clashes in recent years. Janet Reno, in 1993, was the last attorney general to be confirmed without any “no” votes. (Of course, her pathway to the job was anything but smooth. She was Bill Clinton’s third choice, after it was revealed that his top pick, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, and his second, federal judge Kimba Wood, both had employed illegal immigrants as nannies.)
Among the most contentious nomination fights in recent years:
— Edwin Meese, 1985. The longtime adviser and aide to Ronald Reagan was nominated for the job in 1984, but wasn’t confirmed for 13 months.
Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, delayed the confirmation amid ethics complaints about the nominee. “I don’t believe the nominee in this instance meets the standards of this office,” Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said at the time.
Meese was confirmed, 63-31, on Feb. 23, 1985, with all of the “no” votes coming from Democrats. That vote was the most opposition shown for an attorney general nominee since 1925, when President Calvin Coolidge’s pick, Charles B. Warren, was rejected 39-46.
— John Ashcroft, 2001. The former Missouri senator was confirmed, 58-42, on Feb. 1, 2001, after weeks of bitter debate. That was when 50 Republicans joined with eight Democrats who broke ranks. Despite having just served a term in the Senate, George W. Bush’s attorney general nominee was fiercely contested by former colleagues concerned about Ashcroft’s opposition to gun control and abortion.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle echoed the concerns of many Democrats who questioned whether the longtime conservative could be trusted to protect civil rights and enforce the assault weapons ban. “I don’t believe that he is capable of changing his philosophy in the magnitude required to fulfill his obligations as attorney general,” Daschle told NPR then. “I don’t think he can do it even if he wants to have the responsibility.”
— Alberto Gonzales, 2005. Gonzales, the first Hispanic to head the Justice Department and Bush’s second attorney general, won confirmation on Feb. 3, 2005, by a 60-36 vote (the “nays” were all Democrats). The tight vote came after a contentious nomination fight that became, in part, a referendum over the administration’s use of waterboarding in the war on terror. As chief counsel to the White House, Gonzales had helped draft the legal foundations for much of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
Kennedy said it was “a sad day for the Senate” to confirm “a person who was at the heart of the policy on torture that has so shamed America in the eyes of the whole world,” according to The New York Times.
Less than three years later, Gonzales, who had become a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration, resigned under pressure from lawmakers in both parties upset about the attorney general’s role in the authorization of warrantless wiretaps and the firings of U.S. attorneys.
— Michael Mukasey, 2007. Bush’s nomination of Mukasey in September 2007 to replace the scandal-dogged Gonzales was originally welcomed even by Democrats — the respected former federal judge had once been touted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. as a possible Bush Supreme Court appointee.
But by the time he was confirmed seven weeks later, 53-40, Mukasey, like Gonzales in 2005, had become a political punching bag.
Leading Democrats such as Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin urged colleagues not to support Mukasey unless he took a stand against waterboarding.
Still, six Democrats, including Schumer and California’s Dianne Feinstein, voted with Republicans to confirm. Feinstein told The Washington Post that Mukasey was the best possibility for change at the Justice Department. “This is the only chance we have,” she said.
— Holder, 2009. Obama’s choice to head Justice became the country’s first black attorney general after winning confirmation in the Senate, 75-21, on Feb. 2, 2009. His is the fourth-longest tenure as attorney general in the nation’s history, but it’s a tenure marked by controversy, including a June 28, 2012, vote in the House finding him in contempt of Congress.
Many of the 21 Republicans who voted against Holder’s confirmation zeroed in on his role as a deputy attorney general, under Reno, who signed off on President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
“Holder’s judgment and record on pardons and clemency during the Clinton Administration are . . . unsettling,” read a statement from Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. “He chose to circumvent the standard process by which all pardons are granted. . . . In voting against Eric Holder’s confirmation, I am putting the values of Oklahomans first. Be assured that during his time as U.S. Attorney General, I will hold Eric Holder accountable.”
Still, other Republicans were optimistic about the former federal judge and prosecutor’s prospects at the Justice Department. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., predicted that Holder would be “a responsible legal officer and not a politician.”
With Senate control in the balance during the Nov. 4 midterms, it’s a safe bet Obama’s next nominee will not be coasting to the office.