Despite GOP bluster, mostly smooth sailing for Holder

The attorney general nominee faced a few tough questions during his confirmation hearing, but didn't encounter the promised level of opposition.

Published January 16, 2009 12:10AM (EST)

It's been clear for some time now that, for the most part, Barack Obama's high-profile nominees would have little difficulty being confirmed. Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder was supposed to be different. His confirmation hearings would be the place where Republicans would take a stand and show that they weren't just a rubber stamp, that they could provide determined opposition and ask some tough questions.

The choice was an understandable one: Out of all the nominees, Holder had the record most subject to challenge, given his involvement in some controversial pardons. But on Thursday, when Holder appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it seemed as if the threats had been empty ones.

Holder was subject to some tough questioning from the Republican side of the aisle, most of it focusing on his work during the Clinton administration and specifically the pardons granted to Marc Rich and members of FALN, a Puerto Rican terrorist group. But none of it really suggested that Holder will have any real trouble being confirmed, and he was able to defend himself pretty ably.

Holder did face off with Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's ranking member, who had been the leading voice in promising a tough day for the nominee. Towards the end of the day, for example, Specter criticized Holder's decision not to seek an independent prosecutor or special counsel to look into allegations about then-Vice President Al Gore's fundraising practices after he and Clinton were reelected in 1996, and implied there was a political motive in the decision. Holder responded by pointing out that he was involved in the decision to remove Elian Gonzales' from his relatives' house, a decision with serious political implications for Gore because of the influential Cuban exile community in Florida.

Holder also engaged with the Democrats on the committee, who weren't opposing him but were seeking answers as to how the Obama Justice Department and its positions would differ from the Bush administration's. He assured the senators that he would be independent from the president, in contrast to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, reiterated the president-elect's position on closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and made a clear statement on waterboarding, saying he believes the practice -- approved by the Bush administration and used on three suspected members of al-Qaida -- is torture.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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