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THE NATION

United Senate Confirms Mueller to Head FBI

Selection: Unanimous vote cements Bush's nomination. Bickering over nominees for other posts gets worse.

August 03, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Despite partisan wrangling over a new batch of White House nominations, the Senate on Thursday gave quick and unanimous approval to one of President Bush's most closely watched picks as it confirmed San Francisco prosecutor Robert S. Mueller to lead the besieged FBI.

Mueller, 56, will take over an agency that has seen its reputation as the nation's premier law enforcement agency badly tarnished by recent episodes of espionage, witness intimidation, lost documents, missing weapons and other embarrassments within its ranks.

"We know he has a difficult job ahead of him," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as he ticked off a list of recent blunders at the FBI.

But Leahy said Mueller, a veteran prosecutor credited with turning around the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco after his appointment there in 1998, is the right man for the job. "I applaud President Bush for his appointment," the senator said.

Leahy's committee gave Mueller a unanimous vote of approval Thursday after two days of hearings earlier in the week that were marked by unstinting praise for Mueller and widespread condemnation of the FBI. Hours after the committee vote, the full Senate approved Mueller for the job on a 98-0 vote.

Mueller soon will undergo surgery for prostate cancer, and no date has been set for his takeover at the FBI, although Justice Department aides indicated it might not happen for several weeks.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who lobbied hard for the former Marine, said that Mueller "will serve with fidelity, bravery and integrity" and that his background in criminal law brings "an invaluable perspective to the Department of Justice."

Mueller's confirmation followed the Senate's approval earlier this week of Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms James Ziglar as head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But the votes came amid stepped-up political bickering Thursday over some of Bush's other nominations.

Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee voted down Bush's pick of Mary Sheila Gall as head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And a new round of judicial nominations by the White House set off a round of political accusations.

The White House nominated 18 federal judges Thursday, including 15 for seats on district courts and three for the federal claims court.

The selections were concentrated in states that have two Republican senators, with four judges nominated in Oklahoma and three in Kentucky. In states such as California and New York, where both senators are Democrats and the effort to find acceptable candidates may prove more protracted, the White House does not expect to nominate judicial candidates until the fall.

Bush administration officials immediately warned Senate Democrats that they have become frustrated with what they consider unnecessary delays in considering the White House's judicial nominations, which now total 44.

Administration officials complained that, while they have been quick to nominate judges at a rate outpacing those of past presidencies, the Democratic-controlled Senate has approved only four judges so far and has not even scheduled hearings for many candidates. Many districts remain short of judges as a result, Bush advisors said.

"There's really in the administration's view no legitimate justification--given the vacancy crisis--for all these weeks to have passed without hearings," said a senior administration official who asked not to be identified. Bush "expects and is entitled to the same fair treatment for his nominees" as past presidents have received, the official said.

But Leahy said the Judiciary Committee has pushed through the nominations of Mueller and other candidates at a very quick pace, and his aides said the White House has slowed the process by limiting the American Bar Assn.'s traditional role in reviewing nominees.

One of Thursday's judicial nominations who could prove controversial is David Bunning, a 35-year-old assistant U.S. attorney in Kentucky tapped for the federal bench there. Bunning is the son of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), and his nomination came a day after Bush nominated Strom Thurmond Jr., the 28-year-old son of the Senate's senior member, to be the U.S. attorney in South Carolina.

Bunning has been a lawyer for 10 years, two years less than the ABA generally recommends for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, a liberal public-interest group that has criticized Bush for allegedly trying to pack the courts with "right-wing ideologues," said he wants the Bunning nomination to get a close look.

"Thirty-five years old is very young, and I think it's a legitimate issue to question whether this nominee has the qualifications needed to be a federal judge," he said.

But Bush administration officials said Bunning has a proven record as a prosecutor and is well qualified for the job.

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