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White House officials have begun quietly circulating among key Senators a short list of potential replacements for outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one that appears aimed at avoiding a lengthy confirmation fight with Senate Democrats, according to senior GOP and Democratic aides.
Although several Republican leadership aides said the White House has indicated President Bush likely will unveil his choice on Sept. 17 — the last day of Gonzales’ tenure — White House counsel Fred Fielding has been making the rounds in the Senate the past several days and met with Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Wednesday afternoon. Although Leahy would not comment on the meeting prior to speaking with Fielding, he did say that Bush’s top legal adviser has reached out to numerous Judiciary Committee Senators to vet names and gauge feedback over possible nominees.
Fielding also has discussed possible replacements of Gonzales with GOP leaders in the Senate, aides said.
According to senior Republican and Democratic leadership aides, the White House has floated six potential replacements — former Solicitor General Ted Olson; former Attorney General Bill Barr; former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger; D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman; former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson; and Michael Mukasey, a former judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Mukasey — who was recommended by Senate Judiciary member Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — is considered a long shot. Democratic sources said Olson and Terwilliger, both well-known, strongly conservative Republicans, likely would run into significant opposition from Democrats, while Thompson is believed not to want to leave his corporate job at PepsiCo.
Silberman, on the other hand, said a senior Democratic leadership aide,would “have a good chance of confirmation.” The 71-year old jurist was appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals by Ronald Reagan in 1985, and took senior status in 2000. As a senior judge, his departure would not create a vacancy in the circuit.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “There’s a lot of good names to pick from. I hope they pick someone sooner rather than later.” Graham is pushing for Judge William Wilkins of South Carolina, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and took senior status in July.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another prominent member of the Judiciary panel, said she has made her opinions known to the White House as well and is pushing former Republican Sen. John Danforth (Mo.) to take the post. Generally speaking, Feinstein said she hopes the next top Justice official has strong credentials, is independent and is a person of stature.
“I believe he satisfies those criteria,” Feinstein said of Danforth.
But a Senate Republican indicated that Danforth is not in the running at this point, noting that he has broken with the administration on a number of high-profile issues in the past.
Republican sources also say — despite early chatter — that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is not on the administration list, perhaps by his own choice. Those sources say Chertoff may have opted against entering into a bruising confirmation battle for the attorney general post, especially since he is otherwise held in high regard at Homeland Security.