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 immediately was 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 that 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 memos and witnesses that the administration repeatedly has declared off limits.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel would consider Mukasey “in a serious and deliberate fashion.” But he made it clear that Democrats see 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 played by the White House last year in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys; Democrats view the purge as politically motivated.
They are also demanding access to internal Justice Department memos that might shed light on a dispute over whether a pivotal post-Sept. 11 anti-terror 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 a retired judge known for his independence and relative bi-partisanship. Mukasey is neither a Bush crony nor an administration insider, as Gonzales was. Both factors work in his favor.
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 Schumer, D-N.Y.
“That is what would be best for the investigation, and it would assure a much less bumpy confirmation process.”