THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Justice nominee’s long wait goes on

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post / December 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — For nearly five months, James Cole has been awaiting a Senate vote on his nomination for deputy attorney general, by far the longest delay to fill the position in the past 30 years.

He may have to wait longer.

Cole’s nomination for the Justice Department’s No. 2 position was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote in July but has stalled on the Senate floor. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other, even as a bipartisan group of former deputy attorneys general is calling on senators to act.

If Congress adjourns this month without a vote on Cole, the nomination will be sent back to the White House. And as the Senate scrambles to finish several legislative matters before adjourning, the fate of Cole’s nomination and that of others is unclear.

“There is a distinct chance that [Cole’s] nomination will die,’’ said a Republican Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private.

Republicans, especially Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have raised concerns about Cole’s views on terrorism and his work as an independent monitor reviewing the operations of American International Group, the insurance giant bailed out during the financial crisis.

At the same time, Democrats and several Republicans, including John Danforth, a former senator from Missouri, have praised Cole and his credentials, which include 13 years at the Justice Department.

“As an experienced former federal prosecutor and lawyer of exceptional professionalism, Jim Cole is highly qualified for the position,’’ said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman.

Cole, a white-collar Washington defense lawyer and longtime friend of Attorney General Eric Holder, was nominated in May for the position, which had been vacant for three months. The deputy is a chief operating officer for the Justice Department, setting policy and deciding whether to prosecute high-profile cases.

Gary Grindler has served in the post on an acting basis since Holder’s first deputy, David Ogden, departed in February. Current and former Justice officials said Grindler has Holder’s confidence, but they emphasize the need for a Senate-confirmed deputy.

The deputy attorney general “is called upon to make crucial, time-sensitive decisions to protect the American people,’’ wrote eight former deputy attorneys general from Republican and Democratic administrations in a recent letter to Senate leaders urging a vote on Cole.

Mark Filip, deputy attorney general in George W. Bush’s administration, said Grindler “has done a great job,’’ but it is “much easier to govern an institution in the government as a confirmed person than as a person who everyone expects to be gone soon because they are serving in an acting capacity.’’

Since early 1981, the longest previous delay for a deputy attorney general nomination was 61 days, compared with 142 days so far in Cole’s case, Senate records show. Nearly all other nominees have been confirmed in fewer than 30 days.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is the Judiciary Committee chairman, went to the Senate floor Thursday to seek unanimous consent for a vote on Cole. “Let’s end the stalling,’’ said Leahy, who blamed the delay on Republicans “who continue to block us from considering this well-qualified nominee.’’

Sessions, the committee’s ranking Republican, objected. “There are questions about this nominee,’’ he said.

“Frankly, we have a problem of confidence in the Department of Justice,’’ Sessions said.

Republicans have focused in part on a 2002 column Cole wrote for Legal Times that criticized the Bush administration’s battle against terrorism. “The attorney general is not a member of the military fighting a war — he is a prosecutor fighting crime,’’ Cole wrote.

Sessions has said that embodied a failed law enforcement approach to battling terrorists.

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