Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a major foe of legalizing illegal immigrants, signaled Monday that he will be the new Judiciary Committee chairman when the Republicans take control of the Senate next year, putting a major hurdle in the path of President Obama’s hopes of getting an immigration bill through Congress.
The Iowa Republican could have forced a fight over taking the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, but in a statement he said he expects to be approved as the head of the Judiciary Committee instead, giving him a perch to pursue his extensive oversight portfolio during Mr. Obama’s final two years in office.
He will become the first non-lawyer ever to head the committee, which dates back to 1816.
As ranking Republican for the last few years, Mr. Grassley has investigated everything from the botched Fast & Furious gun-walking operation to border security. As chairman he becomes a formidable counter to the White House, with the power to subpoena documents and force administration witnesses to appear to testify before his panel.
“Oversight is too often overlooked,” Mr. Grassley said. “My goal is to promote transparency and accountability and restore the committee’s role as a true check on the massive and powerful federal bureaucracy.”
One of the first questions is whether the Judiciary Committee will clear Loretta Lynch, Mr. Obama’s pick to be the next attorney general, in this Congress or whether the panel will wait until next year, when Republicans are in control.
All of Mr. Obama’s federal judicial nominations also go through Mr. Grassley’s committee, making him the key figure in determining how quickly the president is able to fill seats with like-minded judges. The president had an easy time of it for the last year, after Democrats used the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and weaken the minority party’s filibuster.
Mr. Grassley said his committee won’t be a rubber stamp for Mr. Obama’s nominees, and instead will “work to confirm consensus nominees.”
“Judges are to decide cases and controversies — not establish public policy or make law,” he said.
One of the key areas of oversight for Mr. Grassley will be immigration. He voted for the 1986 amnesty signed by then-President Reagan, but has since said he was burned by that vote, which legalized millions of illegal immigrants, but never delivered on the enhanced border security and interior enforcement that the law promised.
Mr. Grassley voted against the 2013 Senate immigration bill that would have legalized most illegal immigrants, and he has been a fierce critic of the president’s unilateral grants of tentative legal status to illegal immigrants.
In his statement, he said his immigration focus as chairman will be on improving border security and working to streamline the legal immigration system.
Mr. Grassley’s position as the first non-lawyer to head the panel drew criticism during this year’s Senate campaign. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat and lawyer who was seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, was caught on tape speaking to a group of lawyers and describing Mr. Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
Mr. Braley warned it would be a problem for Mr. Grassley to become the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He later apologized for the comments — but ended up losing his race to Republican Joni Ernst.