The back-and-forth over when to hold a confirmation hearing for Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for attorney general, isn’t simply a matter of saving a date on the Senate calendar. It’s an early test of strength for minority Republicans on the eve of one-party Democratic rule in Washington.
Even with a Democrat in the White House and strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans are making clear that they won’t be ignored — and warning Obama that he shouldn’t expect swift confirmation of Holder or any other Cabinet choices.
"It’s not a coronation," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said of Holder’s confirmation hearings.
To anyone who understands political lexicon, his comments and those of a parade of other Judiciary Committee Republicans were clear warning shots fired from a fading Congress toward the Democratic leaders of the next one — for the benefit of anyone who believes one-party rule will mean quick or easy governing.
We may be a vanquished minority, Republicans are saying, but we still have power. Any senator can block a confirmation, a power that several Republicans highlighted by saying they had no "intent" or "desire" — currently — to invoke.
The matter at hand was the announcement that Holder’s confirmation hearings would be held Jan. 8, the week that the 111th Congress convenes. Republicans believed that was a feeler by the incoming Democratic majority to see how fast Obama’s Cabinet picks could be confirmed.
Holder, who was deputy attorney general for President Bill Clinton, is one of Obama’s more controversial picks. He’s widely respected by lawyers in and out of government, and Republicans have shown no inclination to block his confirmation. But he’s expected to face tough questioning over Clinton’s 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, which Holder supported.
Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, was a prolific Democratic donor.
Holder later publicly apologized and said that he would have opposed the pardon if he had paid more attention to the case.
Republicans this week said there is good reason to spend time reviewing Holder’s qualifications, especially given the recent politicization that demoralized the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The agency has major responsibilities, including the balance between tools to fight terrorism and the protection of civil liberties.
"As I look at this matter, it seems to me not realistic or fair to begin hearings before Jan. 26," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said mid-January might work.
More time, of course, also would mean more opportunity to talk about and review publicly that unpleasant chapter in Holder’s career — and by extension, the troubled tenure of the Democrats’ last president.
But insisting on the postponement served another Republican purpose as well. Peppered throughout their protests on the Senate floor was the word "precedent" — as in, not setting one with regard to confirmation hearings for Obama’s other picks.
Kyl, a member of the Judiciary Committee who also is the vote-counting Republican whip, said in his floor speech that a raft of other high-level Justice officials would need confirmation hearings and that there should be no rush.
"I hope if we set the right precedent here with the attorney general himself that these other (designees) will be considered in due time and appropriately," Kyl said, "and we won’t have to each time argue that there is an insufficient opportunity to conduct the kind of examination that would be necessary for positions as important as these."
Asked later if he was referring just to Justice Department posts or other nominations as well, Kyl said:
"You don’t want to start a bad practice here, is what I’m saying."
Just with Justice Department nominees?
"No, that would apply to everybody," Kyl said. "But as a Judiciary Committee member, I specifically mentioned some key positions there."
"I wouldn’t want the chairman of the committee to think I could just ram some of these through," he added.
Laurie Kellman has covered Congress and national politics since 1997.