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As the White House appears to be focused on former Solicitor General Ted Olson as the next attorney general, Senate Democrats are expected to delay President Bush’s nominee in the hopes of forcing the administration to produce thousands of pages of documents on a variety of issues, including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
Sources in both parties said that even if Bush nominates an otherwise noncontroversial attorney general, they don’t expect a speedy confirmation. While Alberto Gonzales may no longer serve as the No. 1 target for Justice Department failures, the agency’s problems remain.
“What I’m concerned about is that there is going to be a slow walk on this nomination,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Friday, adding that it would be problematic if Democrats require that “deals are cut” on other issues to move the nomination.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) acknowledged Friday that he expects the Bush administration to answer a series of key questions in advance of any attorney general confirmation hearings. The sooner those concerns are addressed, the more quickly the Senate can act on a successor to Gonzales, Leahy said.
“When I schedule a hearing, it will be because we have enough information to do an adequate hearing, and not before,” Leahy said.
Leahy met with White House counsel Fred Fielding last week to air potential candidates for the post. While Leahy refused to discuss specific names, the Bush administration has honed in on at least six individuals, with Olson leading the pack, according to Republican lawmakers and others familiar with the issue.
One candidate who is not currently on that six-person list is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), the former Judiciary chairman. Sources have said Hatch is interested in the job and has made that known to many influential Republican Senate colleagues.
A Democratic leadership aide said that while no formal Conference position has been developed, it would not be surprising if Democrats decide to take their time on the nomination as a way to force the administration’s hand.
The White House and Justice Department have resisted efforts by House and Senate Democrats to investigate a host of topics, most notably the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Democrats, alleging that White House political staff was involved in those decisions, have demanded records related to e-mails sent to and from non-government accounts. So far, Republicans have declined to turn over those records.
Democrats said regardless of the nominee or when hearings begin, they expect to use the proceedings as a platform to continue their attacks on the Bush administration and its use of the DOJ.
“Just because Gonzales is gone doesn’t mean the issues are,” a Democratic leadership aide said, adding that “I’m sure [Sen. Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] and his staff have a whole bunch of ideas of how this should proceed.” Schumer — who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and has been a central figure in the investigation into the U.S. attorney firings.
At press time GOP and Democratic aides said it was unclear how receptive Democratic lawmakers will be to an Olson nomination. The Conference appears to be split between longtime Washington insiders who view Olson as a reliable member of their ranks and relative newcomers who see him as the principal architect of Bush’s successful legal campaign in the messy aftermath of the 2000 presidential race. While those familiar with Olson likely would confirm him, the Conference’s other faction seems to be in no mood to back him.
The senior Democratic aide said that while positions will become clearer once a formal nomination has been made, at this point it is impossible to tell whether Olson could make it through the Senate. A veteran GOP aide agreed, saying, “I can’t get a good read” from Democrats.
While he’s not necessarily on the current White House list, Senators have kept an eye on the possibility that one of their own, Hatch, may win the nomination.
Cornyn said that while Hatch is not campaigning for the job, he has discussed it with him and that he would back him. According to Cornyn, while Hatch understands that the confirmation process will be difficult this year, he could end up being the choice of least resistance.
While Democrats would have no trouble blockading a nomination from outside the Senate, the familial atmosphere of the chamber and close personal relationships the veteran lawmaker has developed over the years would make opposition to “one of their own” highly unlikely. “It’s kind of a confluence of the times and the man,” Cornyn said, adding that “I told him I’d support him.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Hatch hasn’t approached him about the job, but he called his Judiciary Committee colleague “a viable candidate who is well-respected.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — ranking member on the Judiciary Committee — apparently has broached the idea with the White House, according to a Republican familiar with the situation. Specter is fiercely loyal to Hatch, who was one of the Pennsylvanian’s most reliable allies during his tenure as committee chairman and helped beat back conservative opposition to Specter taking control of the committee following the 2004 elections.