- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

The battle lines have been drawn for what is shaping up to be a bruising confirmation battle for Attorney General nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. , though even his foes acknowledge he probably will be confirmed to lead the Obama administration’s Justice Department.

Partisan posturing continued Wednesday with some Republicans attacking Mr. Holder’s prior work in the Justice Department and questioning whether he will show the independence necessary to succeed in its top post. Democrats and civil rights leaders defended Mr. Holder as eminently qualified and accused critics of playing politics.

Confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled to start Jan. 15.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Wednesday Mr. Holder’s quest for confirmation will not be “smooth sailing.”

“He still may end up being attorney general. And I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t vote for him because you can’t say he’s not qualified for it; he is qualified,” Mr. Grassley said. “But there’s a lot of people that are qualified. They have other reasons that maybe they shouldn’t be in that position.”

Republicans are gearing up to vigorously question Mr. Holder during the hearing, particularly about his time as the deputy attorney general, the Justice Department’s No. 2 post, under President Clinton.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, delivered a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor criticizing Mr. Holder’s role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Mr. Specter also criticized his involvement with clemency being given to members of a Puerto Rico nationalist organization that the FBI considered terrorists, and his part in the decision by Justice not to investigate allegations of campaign-finance violations by then-Vice President Al Gore.

“Some of his actions raised concerns about his ability to maintain his independence from the president,” Mr. Specter said. He drew parallels to former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in 2007 after a tumultuous term in which critics accused him of making decisions based on direction from the White House, at times to the detriment of the Justice Department.

Mr. Obama’s transition team struck back with spokesman Nick Shapiro saying: “From prosecuting corrupt officials from both parties to supporting the appointment of independent counsels to investigate Democrats, Eric Holder has demonstrated throughout his career that he has the integrity and independence to be an outstanding attorney general.”

On Wednesday, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, and Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, joined several civil rights leaders at a news conference to defend Mr. Holder, who was unfailingly described as the “best” candidate for the job.

The groups — including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Women’s Law Center and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights — said Mr. Holder’s appointment would help ensure that voting rights, employment protection and other anti-discrimination laws are enforced more stringently than under the Bush administration.

“Over the past eight years, the Department of Justice has failed to fulfill its mission of protecting and enforcing the legal rights of all Americans, and women and their families have suffered mightily as a result,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. “It has been politicized and the excellence of the career attorney ranks has been tested and undermined.”

As an example, she said, the Bush administration filed fewer employment discrimination lawsuits than previous administrations.

“From my seat on the Judiciary Committee, I’ve seen up close the damage the Bush administration inflicted on the Department of Justice,” said Mr. Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general in Rhode Island. “I know Eric Holder, and believe that no one is better suited than he to repair that damage, restore the department’s independence, and rebuild morale in its superb professional staff.”

Mr. Cardin predicted the Senate will confirm Mr. Holder. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Senate, a body that almost never blocks Cabinet appointments.