Holder Hearing Concludes, Features Fireworks and Praise
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on President-elect Barack Obamas 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 Holders appearance before the committee limited to one day, refused to allow Republicans to continue their grilling on Friday, instead extending the panels 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 Specters desire for more time for questions, prompting Specter to angrily declare, I dont think its funny, Mr. Chairman. I dont 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 Specters decision to give Democrats extra time to question President George W. Bushs 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 doesnt 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 Holders opposition to appointing a special counsel to look into former Vice President Al Gores 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 isnt interrupted, he growled.
When Holder apologized, Specter snapped back that, I wasnt 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 Specters charges with a warning that he would not stand for his integrity as a lawyer to be questioned. Youre getting close to a line … Youre getting close to questioning my integrity, and thats not appropriate. Thats not fair, and I wont accept that.
Then, it was back to the fighting between Leahy and Specter, when, during a lull in Specters questioning, Leahy seemed to begin moving on to the next questioner. Mr. Chairman, Im 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 Holders time in the Clinton administration in their attacks.
Cornyn repeatedly questioned Holders 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.
Im 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 Holders refusal to take his bait and answer the hypothetical waterboarding question directly. I know you dont like my hypothetical, Cornyn said.
The hypothetical is fine, its the premise I dont like, Holder countered.
Specter also questioned Holders 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 Richs 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 Richs 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 doesnt 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 Coburns (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 bases primary mission.
Indeed, a number of Republicans openly praised Holder. Hatch during the second session of questions praised Holders handling of the inquiries at the hearing, saying, Youve 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 Holders answer to Grahams questions about whether the United States is at war with terrorists, Graham quipped, Im almost ready to vote for you right now.