WASHINGTON — Key Republicans delayed a vote on Wednesday on the confirmation of attorney general nominee Eric Holder in part over concerns that he views Bush administration interrogation practices as torture.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wanted to know more after Holder sidestepped questions about whether he intends to prosecute officials who condoned or carried out the interrogations.
"He's been very ambiguous," Cornyn told reporters. "We need more clarification."
Holder, who'd become the nation's first black attorney general, is still expected to win confirmation. A small group of Republican senators on the committee, however, met privately on Wednesday on Holder's confirmation and agreed that "another few days was necessary," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Not all were enthusiastic about the delay. "I don't want the hard left to make policy, but I also don't want the hard right to make policy," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He said that while he understood Cornyn's concerns, Holder "has handled it just about right so far."
Senators raised a number of other issues, such as Holder's role in the 2001 Clinton administration pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Republicans expect to submit written questions to Holder, and the committee is expected to vote no later than next Wednesday.
In a more than seven-hour confirmation hearing last week, Holder broke with Bush administration policies by declaring, "waterboarding is torture."
However, he didn't explicitly rule out prosecutions of former Bush officials, saying instead "no one is above the law."
Cornyn said he was concerned that Holder's views could mean intelligence officials who participated in what may be regarded as torture could be subject to prosecution.
Cornyn got some support from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee's top Republican, who said he's also not ready to vote on Holder's nomination.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., scoffed at the objection. "No prosecutor should say, 'This is what I will prosecute or who I won't prosecute," Leahy said. "He knows that as a former prosecutor."
Leahy also thought it strange that Cornyn was a backer of Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
"He was one of the least qualified and Eric Holder is one of the most qualified people to be attorney general," Leahy said. "There seems to be a double standard."
Not so, Cornyn countered. "We learn as we go along," he said. "In the post 9/11 world, there are a lot of legal issues that have arisen."
Asked if he wants specific guarantees that certain officials would not be prosecuted, Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, said, "I want some assurance we aren't going to be engaged in a witch hunt. That would be unfair."
Earlier, Cornyn was instrumental in delaying Sen. Hillary Clinton's confirmation to be secretary of state, citing his need for more information about former President Bill Clinton's charitable foundation. Clinton was confirmed on Wednesday, and Cornyn was among the 94 senators who voted to confirm her.
During last week's Holder hearing, Specter also questioned whether the nominee would be sufficiently independent to shield the Justice Department from political meddling by the White House and pointed to his handling of several sensitive cases, including his decision to sign off on the pardon of Rich, who'd fled to Switzerland after he was accused of not paying more than $48 million in taxes.
Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, had donated about $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and $450,000 to Bill Clinton's presidential library fund, leading to allegations that the Riches bought the pardon.
Holder, who worked in the Clinton administration as deputy attorney general, admitted making a mistake, but said he had learned from the experience.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Holder backer, said, "There's enough discontent that something has to be worked out" on the issue. "These are important questions," he said.
Kathryn Kolbert, the president of the left-leaning People For the American Way, however, said she was disappointed by the news and accused Republicans of "petty partisanship."
"Mr. Holder's confirmation isn't in doubt, but it's frustrating to watch this historic nomination be held up for the purposes of political grandstanding," she said.
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