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Nominee is drawn into an old fight

The dispute over executive privilege may become central in confirming Bush's pick for attorney general.

September 18, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former federal Judge Michael B. Mukasey, nominated Monday to succeed Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, has credentials that normally would assure swift confirmation. But he was immediately plunged into a long- running fight between Senate Democrats and the White House over the limits of executive power.

Even as President Bush was introducing Mukasey in a Rose Garden ceremony, Democrats indicated they planned to use his confirmation proceeding to exert pressure on the White House to cooperate with congressional efforts to investigate allegations of administration misconduct. A key element in the dispute is access to executive-branch witnesses and memos that the administration repeatedly has declared off-limits.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said his panel would consider Mukasey "in a serious and deliberate fashion."

But he made it clear that Democrats considered access to at least some of the long-sought administration documents as essential to their evaluation of Mukasey's fitness to lead the Justice Department.

"Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings," Leahy said. "Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule."

For months, the Bush administration and Democrats have been deadlocked over documents that could shed light on the role the White House played last year in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Democrats view the purge as politically motivated.

They also are demanding access to internal Justice Department memos that might provide information on a dispute over whether a pivotal post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism program was legal.

No one is suggesting that Democrats will hold Mukasey's nomination hostage until the White House capitulates entirely.

And many Democrats welcomed the news that Bush -- in what they viewed as a conciliatory move -- had chosen the retired judge, who is known for his independence and relative bipartisanship. Mukasey is neither a Bush crony nor an administration insider, as Gonzales was.

Still, Democrats said Monday that they expected Bush to scale back his broad assertions of executive privilege at least somewhat.

"I hope that this nomination is a sign that the White House will quickly reach agreement on providing documents and witnesses in connection with our investigation," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"That is what would be best for the investigation, and it would assure a much less bumpy confirmation process."

Democrats said they viewed access to the evidence as crucial to asking Mukasey how he was going to address problems at the Justice Department.

"This is a no-brainer," said a senior congressional aide. "This information is going to be important for the committee to have when they question the person who is supposed to be leading the Justice Department for the remainder of the Bush administration." The aide, who declined to be named because the committee had not authorized the aide to speak for it, said the material was "absolutely" needed as part of vetting and considering the nominee.

How far the White House is willing to go to meet Democrats' demands is unclear. For months Leahy has been negotiating privately with White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding for access to the materials, with little evidence of progress. There were signs Monday that those discussions were intensifying in order to avoid an impasse.

Leahy said that Fielding had phoned him and appeared willing to provide some of the information the panel requested. "They aren't going to agree to everything I've asked for, but want to work out some" accommodation, Leahy said. "I take Mr. Fielding at his word."

A senior administration official said Bush hoped that "political issues, if you will, or extraneous issues, if you will . . . don't come in the way of swift confirmation of somebody that's so qualified as this candidate and nominee is." The official asked to remain anonymous when discussing Mukasey's nomination.

"As anyone knows, there are many, many openings at the Department of Justice in leadership roles that must be filled, and that's a very urgent basis," the official said.

He's seen as apolitical

Gonzales, a friend and advisor to Bush for more than a decade, left office Friday after months of questions about whether he allowed politics to color hiring practices and prosecutorial decision-making at the Justice Department.

In choosing Mukasey, Bush not only ventured outside his inner circle -- much as he did in installing Robert M. Gates as Defense secretary -- but he chose someone who is widely considered apolitical, largely because of his service on the federal bench over the last two decades.

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