Senate Republicans blocked a nomination by President Obama for the first time this year on Monday, when they successfully filibustered the confirmation of the White House’s pick for the No. 2 official at the Justice Department.
Democrats had argued that acting Deputy Attorney General James Cole, whom Mr. Obama wanted named to the post permanently, needed full congressional backing if intelligence from terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden’s killing is to be fully put to use.
But Republicans objected to Mr. Cole, largely over concerns about his suggestions that terrorist suspects should be tried in civilian criminal courts, not military tribunals.
“Mr. Cole unfortunately stands by really the outdated, outmoded characterization that these terrorist attacks were ordinary crimes, which they are something much worse indeed,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
“The American people want a Department of Justice that is committed to enforcing the law and protecting the innocent, not creating new civil rights for terrorists or treating them as ordinary criminals when they are something else indeed.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had used a parliamentary tactic intended to overcome GOP resistance of Mr. Cole. The cloture motion limited debate, but also required the OK of at least 60 senators before the nomination could proceed toward a final vote. Democrats control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
But Mr. Cole never got a final vote, as the cloture motion fell short on a vote of 50-40. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana was the lone Republican to side with the Democrats’ failed attempt to overcome the filibuster. Ten senators were absent and didn’t vote.
Mr. Reid, in a parliamentary tactic, switched his “yes” vote to a “no” vote in order to reserve the right to bring up Mr. Cole’s nomination again later.
Mr. Obama sidestepped the Senate to directly appoint Mr. Cole - whose nomination had been stalled for months - when the Senate was on recess in late December.
Because Mr. Cole is a so-called “recess appointment,” his term will expire at the end of the year unless he is confirmed by the full Senate.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he typically opposes recess appointments on principle because they bypass normal Senate procedure.
“We have a process in place for nominations, and if the president isn’t willing to work with senators to clear nominations, the nominee shouldn’t get a second bite at the apple,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, accused Republicans of playing politics with national security, saying it was “the wrong filibuster at the wrong time.”
“Our success in protecting our nation depends on the ability of the president to rely on his national security team,” he said. “Jim Cole is a key member of that team, with a well-deserved reputation for toughness, fairness and integrity.”
The administration and many Capitol Hill Democrats have pushed for many terrorism suspects to be tried in civilian courts, while Republicans want military tribunals used instead.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday in Paris that the United States is still committed to closing the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, despite missing a self-imposed deadline to do so.
“We think that by closing that facility, the national security of the United States will be enhanced,” he said.
Mr. Cole was a Justice Department official for 13 years before entering private law practice in 1992. During his first stint with the department, he served as deputy chief of the public integrity section, which investigates and prosecutes corruption cases of elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.
Mr. Cole was named a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP in 1995, specializing in white-collar defense. He served as special counsel for the House ethics committee in its 1997 investigation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Some Republicans also voiced concerns about Mr. Cole’s role as an independent monitor for American International Group Inc. that began in the years prior to the company’s financial troubles, which surfaced in 2008.
Mr. Grassley said confidential reports he has read suggest Mr. Cole’s handling of the AIG case “reveal what appears to be a level of deference to AIG management one would not expect to see from someone tasked as an ‘independent’ monitor.’ “
Mr. Cole is only the second Obama nominee to be successfully filibustered by Republicans during his presidency. Last year, Republicans used the maneuver to block Craig Becker, whom the president had tabbed to be on the National Labor Relations Board.
After Mr. Becker’s rejection, the president appointed him to the board temporarily during a congressional break. His recess term also expires at the end of the year unless confirmed by the Senate - a move that appears more in doubt, given the outcome of Mr. Cole’s vote.