President Obama's nominee to be Attorney General Eric Holder's top deputy at the Justice Department crashed into a Republican roadblock in the U.S. Senate on Monday, garnering just 50 votes, 10 short of the number needed to break a GOP-led filibuster. Dick Lugar of Indiana was the lone Republican to support the nomination. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote at the last minute to 'no' in order to have the vote reconsidered at a later date.
James Cole, a veteran Washington attorney nominated in May, had been serving in the position since late December courtesy of a presidential recess appointment, one that expires at the end of the current session of Congress. And despite the bipartisan support of eight former attorneys general, Republicans remained steadfast in their opposition, though nothing about Monday night's vote changes Cole's temporary job status.
GOP problems with the deputy attorney general are two-fold. Not only is there concern about Cole's tenure as an independent consultant to insurance industry giant AIG prior to the company's near-collapse in 2008 and its subsequent government bailout, but Republicans also voiced strong concern about what they believe to be his soft-on-terrorism stance.
Republican senators repeatedly referred to an op-ed the nominee penned in 2002 in the Legal Times in which Cole referred to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as "criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population," and included the attacks in the same vein as "many other devastating crimes" like rape, drug trade, organized crime, and child abuse.
Cole told Judiciary Committee members in his confirmation hearing last year that decisions to try alleged terrorists should be made on a case-by-case basis, not ruling out military commissions for some. The Obama administration has since said it will try the alleged 9/11 terrorists imprisoned at the Guantanamo facility in military commissions.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., defended Cole and said, "There's no justification for a failure to act on this critical national security nomination."
But Republicans balked.
Sen. Charles Grassley, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and primary opponent of the nomination, read out a laundry list Monday of his concerns about the nominee, including his AIG stint, which the senator called "troubling," and Cole's position on captured terrorists. The Iowa Republican also expressed an opposition to recess appointments, in general, and cited another concern regarding a DOJ oversight issue unrelated to the nominee as reasons for his blockade of the appointment.
The top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, has also lead the fight against Cole. Chambliss has been fighting to get classified information related to the administration's Guantanamo Bay Detainee Review Task Force.
Still others voiced fear about what they see as a growing trend at DOJ.
"I'm not voting for another nominee, and I'm not going to vote for this one, who spent their time defending terrorists," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., proclaimed, citing "a tilt in the leadership of the department" that the senator said gives him "great concern" that the department is "getting off base."
Leahy warned that the global war on terror could be impacted by the GOP filibuster. In a statement to reporters after Monday night's vote, Leahy said, "One week ago, a successful operation led to the death of the world's number one terrorist. Experts and the American people believe that we are now facing a heightened terrorism threat in the wake of the raid upon Osama bin Laden's compound. Our success in protecting our Nation depends on the ability of the President to rely on his national security team. Jim Cole is a key member of that team, with a well-deserved reputation for toughness, fairness, and integrity. He has demonstrated the leadership skills and clear-eyed focus on the mission that we need against al Qaeda."
Cole previously served in the Justice Department for more than a dozen years before heading into private practice in 1992. He also served on former President Bill Clinton's transition team in 1992.