By Laurie Kellman
Senate Republicans on Monday blocked President Barack Obama’s choice for the No. 2 job in the Justice Department and dampened talk that Osama bin Laden’s death might usher in bipartisan cooperation on terrorism matters.
The 50-40 vote, short of the Senate’s required 60-vote threshold, sidelined Obama’s monthslong drive to make official James M. Cole’s position as deputy attorney general. Obama installed Cole as Attorney General Eric Holder’s deputy over Republican objections last year while Congress was out of session. The deputy attorney general signs off on the department’s anti-terrorism plans.
Some saw the vote Monday, which Senate Democrats kept open for about 40 extra minutes, as an early sign of whether Republicans might give Obama the national security team he seeks. Only Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., crossed partisan lines. At the last minute, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., changed his vote to ‘no’ to comply with obscure rules that allow him to bring up the nomination at a later point.
Republicans have long objected to Cole’s endorsement of prosecuting accused terrorists in federal courts. They also complained about Cole’s recess appointment.
The Obama administration signaled it was not giving up on Cole, a lawyer who has served in the Justice Department under presidents of both parties.
“We are confident that he will ultimately be confirmed,” White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said in an email.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he objected specifically to a 2002 article in the Legal Times in which Cole likened the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the destruction of a federal building in Oklahoma City and said al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington were “criminal acts,” rather than acts of war.
“It appears that if given a choice of prosecuting high-ranking terrorists in civilian courts or military commissions, Mr. Cole would likely favor civilian courts based upon his longstanding belief in the role the attorney general plays in protecting the principles of the criminal justice system,” said Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the Senate vote “the wrong filibuster at the wrong time” and said that Cole has demonstrated the leadership Obama needs in the fight against terrorism.