Eric H. Holder Jr., once considered the Obama administration’s only Cabinet nominee against whom Republicans could rally, became the nation’s first black attorney general Monday, as Republican senators turned their attention to Tom Daschle‘s tax problem to question his previously unchallenged bid to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Senate confirmed Mr. Holder by a vote of 75-21, with Democrats praising his rise to become the nation’s top law-enforcement official as a fulfillment of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s dream. They also said he is the perfect fit to oversee the legal aspects of President Obama‘s fight against terrorists.
“It is a statement that we all want to restore the integrity and competence of the Justice Department and to restore another critical component - the American people’s confidence in federal law enforcement,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, referring to criticisms that the Bush administration abused its authority over the department and damaged its reputation.
Mr. Holder’s confirmation never appeared to be in serious doubt, although Republicans delayed it for a week and railed against his record as a top Justice Department official during the Clinton administration. They specifically attacked Mr. Holder’s role in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and his involvement in clemency for a group of Puerto Rican terrorists.
They also feared that Mr. Holder would prosecute intelligence officials who carried out controversial interrogation techniques during the Bush administration. Mr. Holder sought to allay those fears in a written response to questions from Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, told The Washington Times last week that Mr. Holder went even further during a private discussion, saying that he explicitly promised not to pursue such prosecutions.
Prior to the vote, the Senate Finance Committee met privately with Mr. Daschle, whose nomination as health and human services secretary seemed a sure thing until news broke last week that he failed to pay more than $128,000 in taxes.
The former Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota blamed his tax problems on miscommunication with his tax accountant and a former employer who failed to supply him with proper tax-return information.
“My failure to recognize that the gift of a car was income and not a gift from a good friend was a mistake,” Mr. Daschle told a gathering of reporters. “When I realized the mistake, I notified officials and paid the tax in full.”
In a letter to committee members a day earlier, he said that he was “deeply embarrassed and disappointed” about his delinquent tax payment and that the lapse was unintentional.
Democrats said gave a detailed account of his failure to pay the taxes - an explanation that Democrats on the committee said they fully accepted and were willing to overlook.
Mr. Daschle “made mistakes on his taxes - they were disappointing mistakes, but it’s clear they were not purposeful mistakes,” said committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. “Tom Daschle remains eminently qualified to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services.”
Mr. Baucus said that the committee, which has the final say on submitting Mr. Daschle’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote, will hold a confirmation hearing for the former Senate Democratic leader next week.
But Senate Republicans said there still are questions that need to be answered before they can support Mr. Daschle’s nomination.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the finance panel, indicated that more ground needs to be covered, and Sen. John McCain said the Daschle matter deserves more scrutiny.
“It’s a bit mystifying how all this could happen, but I’d like to examine the details of it before making up our mind. But this isn’t exactly the ethics and lobbying reform that the president announced a short time ago,” Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said Monday morning on CBS.
Mr. Obama said he was sticking with his nominee Monday. Mr. Daschle filed amended returns for 2005 to 2007 to report $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest after being nominated. The taxes were on income from consulting work and the use of a car service.
Meanwhile, the White House said Monday night that Mr. Obama plans to nominate Sen. Judd Gregg as commerce secretary Tuesday, as the New Hampshire Republican disclosed an apparent deal that would keep his seat out of Democratic hands, the Associated Press reported.
“I have made it clear to the Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle and to the governor that I would not leave the Senate if I felt my departure would cause a change in the makeup of the Senate,” Mr. Gregg said Monday. The White House confirmed the Gregg choice on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, confirmed the “understanding,” stopping just short of promising to appoint a Republican or an independent to serve out the remaining two years of Mr. Gregg’s term.
As for Mr. Holder, most senators praised his experience as a prosecutor, federal judge and private lawyer. Some said he has shown independence throughout his career, noting that as a prosecutor he targeted members of his own party for public corruption. They also pointed to Mr. Holder’s support of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation into President Clinton, which ultimately led to impeachment proceedings.
“This is a man of really exceptional service,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.
Support came form both sides of the aisle.
Mr. Bond said he was swayed by Mr. Holder’s position on prosecuting intelligence officials and of giving immunity from civil lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with Bush administration’s intelligence-gathering programs.
In written a response to questions from Republicans, Mr. Holder suggested that he would be unlikely to pursue prosecutions of intelligence officials engaged in controversial interrogation tactics.
Among Mr. Holder’s first tasks as attorney general will be to come up with a plan to deal with the 245 detainees who remain in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Obama last week signed an executive order calling for the prison to be closed within the next year.
Mr. Holder will consider having the detainees’ cases heard in civilian courts, military courts or even in some form of the military commissions set up during the Bush administration.
He will also oversee any prosecutions arising out of the current financial crisis.