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Senate Confirms Holder as Attorney General

Attorney General Eric Holder. (AP)

WASHINGTON -- Former federal judge Eric Holder won Senate confirmation Monday as the nation's first black attorney general after supporters from both parties spoke of his ideal resume and easily overcame some Republican objections over what they considered his insufficient commitment to fight terror and his support for gun control.

The vote was 75-21.

Holder's chief supporter, Sen. Patrick Leahy, said the confirmation was a fulfillment of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that everyone should be judged by the content of their character.

"Come on the right side of history," Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reluctant senators.

Holder becomes the only black in President Barack Obama's Cabinet. Three other African-Americans were named to top administration positions but are not Cabinet secretaries.

Holder was a federal prosecutor, judge and the No. 2 Justice Department official in the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Even his critics agreed that Holder was well-qualified, but they questioned his positions and independence.

The debate turned partisan in its first moments, when Leahy expressed anger that a few Republicans demanded a pledge from Holder that he would not prosecute intelligence agents who participated in harsh interrogations.

Leahy singled out Texas Republican John Cornyn as one who wanted to "turn a blind eye to possible lawbreaking before investigating whether it occurred."

"No one should be seeking to trade a vote for such a pledge," Leahy said.

When Cornyn rose to announce his vote against Holder, he did not make such a demand. He accused the nominee, however, of changing his once-supportive position on the need to detain terror suspects without all the rights of the Geneva Convention to one of harshly criticizing the former Bush administration's counterterror policies.

"His contrasting positions from 2002 to 2008 make me wonder if this is the same person," Cornyn said. "It makes me wonder what he truly believes."

Cornyn and Sen. Tom Coburn said Holder was hostile to the right of individuals to own guns, despite a Supreme Court ruling last June affirming the right to have weapons for self-defense in the home.

Holder said at his confirmation hearings: "I understand that the Supreme Court has spoken." But he added that some restrictions on guns could still be legal.

Holder's confirmation will trigger reviews and changes to the most controversial Bush administration policies, from interrogation tactics to terrorism trials and warrantless surveillance. 

Those are some of the known issues. Even Holder does not know what he will find when he looks at secret memos in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

Holder also will have to rehabilitate a department that under President George W. Bush was criticized for injecting politics in hiring career officials and firings of U.S. attorneys. He will have to decide whether to prosecute Justice Department officials who may have violated the law in some of those policies and tactics.

Holder also could reverse Bush's orders to former aides not to testify before Congress on their private discussions on the U.S. attorney firings.

To the satisfaction of Democrats and consternation of some Republicans, Holder told his confirmation hearing, "Waterboarding is torture." The statement about an interrogation technique that simulates drowning was an important signal of a policy change from Bush's view that the tactic was legal and not torture.

Obama issued an executive order to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. He also created a special task force, co-chaired by the attorney general and the secretary of defense, to review detainee policy. The group will consider policy options for apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees and report to the president within 180 days.

One of Holder's most intriguing missions will be to review the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and viewed themselves as attorneys for the White House.