WASHINGTON – Just when it appeared Julie Myers had cleared every hurdle in her quest to officially become the nation's top immigration official, a dreadlocked wig and a prisoner's outfit could cost her the job.
Myers, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ran into trouble earlier this month after she and two other agency managers gave the "most original" costume award to a white employee who came to the agency's Halloween party dressed as an escaped prisoner with dreadlocks and darkened skin.
The incident drew complaints of racial insensitivity and an apology from Myers. It also cast doubt on whether she'll get a confirmation vote before the end of the year, when her original appointment expires.
It would be a stunning collapse for Myers, 38, a native of Shawnee, Kan., who worked hard over the past two years to convince skeptical lawmakers that someone with little immigration experience was up to the task of running the government's second largest investigative force.
With just a few more weeks to go before the end of the session, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not scheduled a vote on Myers. Spokesman Jim Manley said this week that Reid has "serious concerns" with the nomination and is consulting with other lawmakers about how to proceed.
Myers met resistance in 2005, the first time President Bush tried to appoint her to the Homeland Security Department post, after Democrats and Republicans said she had weak credentials for the high-profile job. To avoid a fight, Bush installed her during a Senate recess and her position expires at year's end unless the Senate votes to confirm her.
Questions about nepotism also came up because Myers is the niece of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is married to John Wood, the U.S. attorney in Kansas City and former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Even some of those expected to defend Julie Myers seemed shaky.
"The way things are going, we may not ever vote on her nomination," Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who is a second cousin of Myers' husband, said Friday. "Our nation's immigration enforcement agency needs non-controversial leadership. That would be best served by going in a different direction with this nomination."
Bond's reaction was a surprise, said ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel, and Myers is trying to speak with the senator about it.
Despite Bush's decision to circumvent the Senate, it was clear in hearings earlier this year that Myers had won over many doubters with her performance in stabilizing the agency's financial problems and improving its management.
Some key lawmakers have rallied to her defense, including Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who chairs the Senate Homeland Security committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the panel's top Republican.
"Senator Lieberman regrets her lapse in judgment regarding the Halloween incident," spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said. "He is inclined to support her nomination, given the committee's review of her entire record, the fact that the union representing 7000 ICE employees supports her and her year's experience in office."
Myers has apologized repeatedly for the costume incident, saying she was "shocked and horrified" to learn the employee had altered his skin color and conceding "it was inappropriate for me to recognize any individual wearing an escaped prisoner costume."
"She took very direct steps prior to address what she felt was a bad judgment call, bad decision and to take responsibility for what was an offensive costume worn by an employee," Nantel said.
The employee was placed on administrative leave and Myers issued a formal apology to all ICE employees two days after the episode. She also reached out to a black employees group to express her regrets. The group, the National Association of African-Americans in the Department of Homeland Security, sent a letter to Reid this week praising Myers' commitment to black employees.
Still, it was not the kind of image many lawmakers wanted to see from the agency responsible for arresting and incarcerating illegal immigrants.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of Myers' harshest critics even before the costume episode, placed a hold on the nomination while lawmakers sought more details. While McCaskill does not support Myers, she is willing to allow an up or down vote in the full Senate.
"I can forgive anyone who apologizes for a wrong deed," said McCaskill. "But it doesn't change the fact that the incident showed a woeful lack of judgment."