Eric Holder, a former Justice Department official who was President-elect Barack Obama's campaign co-chairman, is the leading candidate to serve as the next U.S. attorney general, according to Democratic sources familiar with the choice.
Holder, 57, was offered the job late last week and accepted it on the condition that he receive at least moderate support from Republican lawmakers and that he complete the vetting process, conditions set forth by Obama's transition team, the sources said. Intermediaries began to reach out to Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, and the vetting pace accelerated Tuesday.
Sources close to the process said Holder was a “near certainty” to become the first African American nominated to head the Justice Department, which plays a leading role in enforcing civil rights laws. Officials in the Obama transition office said no final decision has been reached.
The nation's next top law enforcement officer will inherit significant challenges, including a work force demoralized by allegations of political interference during the Bush years, the vexing issue of how to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and whether to open criminal investigations of administration officials who approved harsh interrogation tactics and warrantless wiretapping programs.
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As a former judge and top federal prosecutor in Washington, Holder has extensive experience with the criminal justice system. He is widely known within the city's legal community and for his philanthropic work on behalf of troubled juveniles. In recent years, he defended corporations as a law firm partner, and he took an active role in the presidential campaign after befriending Obama at a dinner party.
Over the course of his career, Holder has won praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though his selection is likely to revive questions about his inability to prevent a last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who won relief from President Clinton during his final day in office in 2001.
In congressional testimony, Holder acknowledged that he had made a mistake by not spending more time on the pardon request and by making a quick judgment of “neutral leaning towards favorable.” Holder told Republicans on the House government reform committee that efforts to make him and the Justice Department “the fall guys in this matter are rather transparent and simply not consistent with the facts.”
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that the pardon issue is “a factor … that will be on center stage.
“I wouldn't want to articulate it among the top items but it's worthwhile to look at,” he told reporters, according to The Associated Press.
Another Republican Senate source said that Holder's background is “not a deal breaker.”
Michael Madigan, a Republican lawyer who has served in several high-profile positions on Capitol Hill but who supported Obama's bid for the presidency, said that “the whole Marc Rich thing is a bad rap and it won't go anywhere” if GOP senators press it at confirmation hearings.
Whoever receives the nomination is also likely to face tough questions from Democrats interested in rehashing Bush administration battles that Obama has demonstrated little appetite for pursuing.
Holder has yet to complete a rigorous vetting process by the Obama transition team. A formal announcement of the choice may not come for several days, sources said. Holder did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
If nominated and confirmed, Holder would join several other members of the Clinton administration who have signed on to the Obama team, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Holder has advocated an aggressive federal role in enforcing laws regarding health care, civil rights and the environment, as well as more resources to combat violent crime.