Senators surmounted a Democrat-led filibuster Tuesday and put William P. Barr on the path to confirmation as the next attorney general, rebuffing Democrats’ complaints that he would be too friendly to President Trump.
A final vote is expected Wednesday or Thursday, but that is likely to mirror Tuesday’s 55-44 vote, which broke down largely along partisan lines.
“If America ever needed a steady hand at the Department of Justice, it is now,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who shepherded Mr. Barr through the Judiciary Committee and will oversee the floor debate this week.
Mr. Barr served previously as attorney general in the early 1990s, winning confirmation then on a voice vote, drawing praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for his candidness.
Things were far more divisive this time, with Democrats saying that special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe made this a more momentous appointment.
“It is clear that the president’s major concern in choosing a new attorney general is to choose someone who will shield him from the special counsel investigation,” said Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat.
Mr. Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was particularly troubled by a 2018 memorandum Mr. Barr submitted to top Justice Department officials critical of Mr. Mueller’s inquiry into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice. The memo also expressed a sweeping view of presidential power.
Mr. Warner said the Mr. Barr he saw in the memo is someone willing to protect the president from any fallout stemming from the Mueller probe.
Other Democrats said they feared Mr. Barr would try to bottle up any eventual report Mr. Mueller might submit, denying the public a look at the findings of the lengthy probe.
Mr. Barr, at his confirmation hearing, promised as much transparency as the law would allow.
And Mr. Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Barr has said he will allow Mr. Mueller’s investigation to run its course.
“He said it, I believe him, and that is the way this movie has to end,” Mr. Graham said.
Republicans say Democrats were reflexively opposed to the Trump nominee.
“I hope our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will judge this nominee on his qualifications and not on the person who nominated him,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Once confirmed, Mr. Barr will replace ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced to resign in November by a president who never got over Mr. Session’s decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Mr. Sessions’ recusal left oversight of the Mueller probe to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has also been criticized by the president.
Mr. Sessions was replaced on an interim basis by Matthew G. Whitaker, his former chief of staff. Mr. Whitaker’s roughly three-month tenure at the helm of the Justice Department will come to end upon Mr. Barr’s confirmation.
With a filibuster now defeated, the Senate has up to 30 hours of additional debate time before a final vote.
The time overnight Tuesday counted against that clock, even though the chamber wasn’t in session.
Three Democrats backed Mr. Barr in the filibuster fight: Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, broke with his party and voted no, saying he didn’t trust Mr. Barr to protect civil liberties on issues such as government surveillance and didn’t think Mr. Barr was committed to the criminal justice law just signed last year by Mr. Trump.
“While I support President Trump and have supported most of his nominees, I have too many concerns about the record and views of this nominee,” Mr. Paul said in a statement.
Mr. Paul also said Mr. Barr had “a troubling record on the Second Amendment.”
That echoed a complaint advanced by the Campaign for Liberty, the group founded by Mr. Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul.
CFL had urged its members to lobby senators against Mr. Barr, and Norm Singleton, the group’s president, said he was disappointed other conservative Republican senators, like Texas’ Ted Cruz and Utah’s Mike Lee, were supporting the nomination. He said he hopes both change their minds before the final vote.
“We think in this case, senators who have shown strong commitments to gun rights and limits on executive power will be willing to take a stand on the floor,” he said.
But Mr. Barr’s nomination was strongly backed by other conservative groups.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director at the Judicial Crisis Network, said they view Mr. Barr’s record on gun issues as “strong,” and said he showed a careful approach to the Mueller investigation.
“One thing we’ve seen as a pattern with him is that he is not going to prejudge a case,” she said. “He is not going to make promises he knows are inappropriate even if a senator wishes he could promise one way or another. He is going to get into the position and do the analysis because confidential concerns and statutes cannot be disclosed. I think that was exactly the right line.”
Left-leaning groups, though, had a litany of reasons to oppose Mr. Barr, including his opposition to criminal justice reform during his first tenure as attorney general in the 1990s.
That stance, they said, has led to unacceptably high incarceration rates of black Americans.
“His stance on the Mueller probe and criminal justice reform and mass incarceration are of equal concern,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president, People for the American Way.
Mr. Barr, during his confirmation hearing, promised he would carry out the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill recently signed into law by the president.