Friday, January 16, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama‘s nominee for attorney general helped President Clinton pardon a federal fugitive whose ex-wife was a major Democratic donor.

His secretary of state selection is mired in controversy over foreign donations to her husband’s charity.

And the presidential pick for Treasury secretary didn’t pay his taxes for years.

The Republican response? Yawn.

“I’m almost ready to vote for you right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Thursday to attorney general nominee Eric Holder after asking him a single question.

Senator Hillary Clinton is the epitome of a big leaguer,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana said in a Senate lovefest for the secretary of state nominee Wednesday.

“Talented people like Tim Geithner are needed right now,” New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg said about Mr. Obama’s Treasury choice Wednesday.

Republicans are taking a hands-off approach so far on Mr. Obama’s Cabinet picks, offering effusive praise while steering clear of stinging questions common in many past confirmation hearings. With Mr. Obama still riding high after his November victory, few see any point in hammering the people he has named to populate his administration.

Thursday’s hearing on Mr. Holder was a prime example. “They won’t lay a hand on this guy, and that’s why you won’t even see them try,” one savvy Senate aide said before the show got under way.

The first batch of Obama nominees beat the Republicans to the punch when it comes to flaws. The expected attorney general addressed the controversy over his role in the last-minute Clinton pardons by acknowledging in his opening statement that he erred.

“My decisions were not always perfect,” the mustachioed Mr. Holder said minutes into the hearing, his words echoing off the marble walls in the ornate Russell Building hearing room. “I made mistakes.”

Mrs. Clinton vowed expansive oversight of donations to her husband’s charity, while Mr. Obama stepped up quickly to mute Republican attacks on his Treasury nominee, even warning reporters not to cast the first stone as he pre-empted what in years past almost certainly would have been a bloodbath.

“It was an innocent mistake,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I’ve said before, if my criteria, whether it was for Cabinet secretary or vice presidents or presidents or reporters, was that you’d never made a mistake in your life, none of us would be employed.”

The 1993 Clinton nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general was derailed quickly after it was learned she had employed illegal aliens as a chauffeur and a nanny, neglecting to pay Social Security taxes for them. But Mr. Geithner’s case was much different: He failed to pay nearly $35,000 of his own taxes stretching back eight years.

Still, no Republican appears ready to mix it up with a popular president-elect just days before Americans flood Washington to see the first black man elected to the highest office in the land.

“Now’s not the time to think in small political terms,” said Mr. Graham, who campaigned for months to elect his longtime friend, Sen. John McCain, to the presidency. “I don’t see any desire by the Republican Party to play ‘gotcha’ on something like this.”

If Republicans don’t want to take aim at a Treasury nominee who didn’t pay his taxes, they sure weren’t about to target a former deputy attorney general and one-time federal judge who is seeking to become the nation’s first black man in the top Justice Department post.

“You are a high-level professional, outstanding record, no doubt about your professional judgment,” said the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter.

While he broached the subject of the controversial pardons quickly, he did so with all due respect.

“How do you explain it beyond simply a mistake?” the Pennsylvania senator asked in reference to the Clinton pardon of a wealthy supporter who evaded taxes on $100 million in income and participated in illegal oil deals with Iran.

“Well, I don’t mean to minimize what I did by calling it a mistake, or mistakes, and in fact I take what I did seriously and have expressed regret for what I did consistently,” Mr. Holder said.

“What did happen?” Mr. Specter said softly.

At the end of the morning session, every single Republican chair sat empty. By day’s end, the august Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said simply: “I look forward to you being confirmed and serving in this really, really important position.”

• Joseph Curl can be contacted at

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