What’s going to be the White House strategy to get Eric Holder’s successor as attorney general confirmed by the Senate? That’s the big question in Washington political circles today following Holder’s Thursday announcement that he’s stepping down.
As with any big Cabinet shuffle, the real interest among politicos and reporters is what comes next, and not what happened during the previous person’s tenure. In this case that natural tendency has been intensified by the timing of Holder’s resignation. He’s quit just weeks before key mid-term elections. Republicans are favored to win control of the Senate, which would give them much more control over the confirmation process for the next attorney general.
The White House has a choice: try to cram Holder’s successor through the Senate before control might switch hands, or wait and face the possibility of GOP-run confirmation hearings.
“President Obama’s selection of a nominee – and his decision on how quickly to push the Senate for approval – will reveal much about how he envisions his relationship with Republicans in his final two years in office,” writes The New York Times’ Carl Hulse this a.m.
Most Senate Democrats appear to be in the hurry-up camp at the moment. The Senate Democratic leadership has pushed through a rule change ensuring that all appointments except for Supreme Court justices are decided by majority vote, not the old three-fifths threshold. This means it would be much easier for the president’s pick if hearings start in November or December.
“Definitely, we should have confirmation hearings as quickly as possible in the Senate,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont told NBC News on Thursday.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, are generally clamoring for a slower process.
“Allowing Democratic senators, many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls, to confirm Holder’s successor would be an abuse of power that should not be countenance,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas.
But we say the choice here isn’t that clear cut, in partisan terms. There are advantages for the Democrats in waiting to start the nomination process.
For the White House, lining up a Holder successor in a few weeks would be moving pretty fast. There are FBI background checks to make, pre-hearing interviews to get through to expose any possible weak points, and so forth. Plus, as of Friday, there did not appear to be any real front-runner for the post.
Among the top names to surface so far are former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, and US Attorney Preet Bharara of New York.
Haste could lead to a mistaken appointment, which the White House does not want.
In addition, by waiting President Obama could say to the Republicans, in essence, “OK, it’s your Senate, now it’s up to you to show how you govern the country.” If the GOP blocks or slows Obama’s nominee, he could complain about the Senate abdicating its responsibilities.
At least one key Democratic senator sounds as if he’s pushing such a hard-ball political approach.
“What I think the president ought to do is make this the first test of whether the new Republicans are going to obstruct,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a current Judiciary Committee member.
The flip side of this is that Republicans might benefit from December hearings. This would give them more freedom to inveigh against Holder’s perceived abuses and the perfidy of the (possibly) lame duck Senate majority leader Harry Reid. It’s always easy to play to your party’s base when you’re still in the minority.
Whatever happens, it’s almost certain that the hearings on the attorney general will be contentious. This is partly because Holder has been at the center of many controversies which have infuriated Republicans, such as the botched Fast and Furious gun case. It’s also due to the fact that attorney general is one of the most important, sensitive, and politically fraught of all top government posts.
This is shown by the high number of “no” votes past AG nominees have received, points out Harry Enten today at the 538 data journalism site.
“Although the vast majority of Cabinet nominees are confirmed, the confirmation of an attorney general has been the most contentious of any Cabinet position,” writes Mr. Enten.