WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats will block Ted Olson from succeeding Alberto Gonzales as attorney general if President Bush nominates him, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.
"Ted Olson will not be confirmed," Reid, D-Nev., said in a written statement. "I intend to do everything I can to prevent him from being confirmed as the next attorney general."
The comment gave weight to Republican warnings that Olson, a former solicitor general, would face brutal confirmation hearings and that the White House can't afford a fight now over who will head the troubled federal law enforcement agency.
"It would be unfortunate to nominate someone who can't be confirmed," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said earlier in the day.
The White House said President Bush would send up an "exceptionally qualified nominee."
"The nominee will have expertise in the law, a commitment to fighting crime, and an understanding of the threats we face today and the legal tools needed to combat those threats," said deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto. "We hope the Senate will set aside partisan politics long enough to confirm a nominee — for the good of the Justice Department and the country."
There had been no indication that Bush had settled on Olson to succeed Gonzales, whose last day on the job is Friday.
But Olson's name has been mentioned enough that both Republicans and Democrats are saying that the longtime GOP ally would face a long, tough fight after representing candidate Bush before the Supreme Court in the contested 2000 election.
Earlier Wednesday, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, said he talked with about 10 Democrats about Olson and that some made noises, if not outright threats, about blocking his nomination.
"I have been warned by a number of Democrats that they're not going to let that happen," Hatch said of an Olson confirmation. If the White House thinks Olson would sail through the Senate, Hatch said, "then they don't understand the people up here."
Reid's comments were the first indication that Olson's nomination would be dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill.
Democrats, including current Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, indicated they would mount strong challenges to Olson if Bush nominates him. "He is certainly not a consensus nominee," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "He has a very political background."
Conservatives brushed off the Democrats' warnings, and Hatch and Sessions predicted Olson would survive the confirmation process, however rocky.
Wendy Long, counsel for the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, said Democrats want to declare victory without having to fight and appear to be obstructionists.
"They would love to be able to say they scared the White House out of nominating Olson," she said. "At this point, if Bush nominates anyone other than Olson, they will take credit for it."
Olson declined to comment, and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for a response.
The bubbling controversy spilled onto the Senate floor Wednesday, when Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned that any holdup of the yet-to-be-named nominee would make hypocrites of Democrats who urged Bush to swiftly name Gonzales' successor. Nomination to confirmation of new attorneys general has taken on average three weeks since the Carter administration, McConnell said.
If Democrats delay the nomination, McConnell warned, "they'll show the American people that their concern for the department was insincere."
Chafing some Democrats are several items on Olson's resume. He represented Paula Jones in her sex harassment suit against President Clinton before making the winning argument before the Supreme Court in the 2000 election.
The new president then nominated Olson for solicitor general, the government's advocate before the high court. He was confirmed only after a lengthy, polarizing fight.
Olson's wife Barbara died in the Sept. 11 attacks aboard the airliner that terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. He has since remarried.
Olson has displayed some independence from Bush on at least one occasion. When former Deputy Attorney General James Comey was summoned to the White House in 2004 after refusing to sign off on Bush's warrantless surveillance program, Olson accompanied Comey for support.
Another name mentioned for the post is former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger, who also worked on Bush's 2000 election legal team.
Hatch is another name mentioned. Several Senate colleagues have said they have spoken with Hatch about the prospect and predicted that the White House could turn to him if Bush can't convince anyone else acceptable to Democrats to take the job.
Hatch has said he discussed the prospect with the White House but believes "it's not going to happen."