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Patience, please

The president as well as Senate Democrats should not rush in confirming a new attorney general.

September 24, 2007

President Bush wants the Senate to confirm his choice for attorney general, retired federal judge Michael B. Mukasey, before its October recess. If Democrats don't embrace the White House timeline, they will be accused of not taking yes for an answer. After all, they asked Bush to nominate a blue-chip candidate like Mukasey rather than a sharper-edged partisan like former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y) even floated Mukasey's name.

Bush should show some patience. Mukasey's stature does make it easier for the Senate to move expeditiously, but there is nothing magical about the White House's Oct. 8 target date. Precisely because of Alberto R. Gonzales' dereliction, the Senate should carefully question even as impressive a candidate as Mukasey about his plans and his philosophy, particularly regarding the legal basis for the war on terror. If that requires postponing a vote until after the recess, so be it.

Ironically, Bush himself has removed a justification for fast-tracking the confirmation process. Last Monday, the president announced that the Justice Department would be run temporarily not by Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, the government's chief lawyer in the Supreme Court, but by Assistant Atty. Gen. Peter D. Keisler. That means the Senate can give due consideration to Mukasey's qualifications without distracting Clement from his duties at the court, which begins its new term on Oct. 1.

The Judiciary Committee should take as long as necessary to question Mukasey about his intentions, but no longer. It's encouraging that Democrats seem to be edging away from any plan to hold the nomination hostage until the White House produces witnesses and documents that would shed light on the still-mysterious dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys under Gonzales.

As we have observed before, enough uncertainty remains about whether some or all of the firings were improper that the administration needs to be more forthcoming, even after Gonzales' departure. We continue to support a compromise proposed by Schumer and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), in which former officials such as Harriet E. Miers and Karl Rove would testify for the record about White House involvement in the firings but without being placed under oath.

Progress on such a compromise would be welcome. But it shouldn't be a precondition for Mukasey's confirmation if the Senate satisfies itself -- after a deliberate review -- that he is willing and able to lead the Justice Department in the post-Gonzales era. Like Bush, Democrats need to show some patience.

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