By noon Monday, Michael Mukasey had pecked the ring of official Washington.
President Bush’s nominee to be the next attorney general talked by phone with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s fiercest critic of the last attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
Mukasey huddled with Republican Senate leaders at the White House. And administration aides had reached out on his behalf to conservative organizations that had really been pining for former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, a right-wing favorite.
The early reviews were notable for the restraint, if not outright optimism, shown by all sides in the fight over a successor for what has become one of the most politically charged federal agencies.
One key exception was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who suggested in a statement Monday that he won’t schedule confirmation hearings until the White House provides more information about the nine controversial U.S. attorney firings and the administration’s terrorist surveillance programs.
“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.”
Leahy was the first — and so far, the only — Democrat to put the nomination in such stark terms.
Later, the White House called on the Senate to confirm Mukasey by Oct. 8, arguing that the confirmation of several past attorney general nominees has typically taken about three weeks.
Leahy, responding in a speech on the Senate floor, resisted the deadline demands and reasserted demands of his own.
White House counsel Fred Fielding “called me yesterday, and without going into the details of that conversation, I believe he understands that there are certain materials that we’ve requested from the White House, requested for some time now, that will be necessary so that we can do a thorough deliberation,” Leahy said. “And I take him at his word that we will try to work out a way to get some of those materials.”
The prospect of Leahy and other Democrats using the nomination as a proxy fight for the congressional inquiries into the fired federal prosecutors appeared to be unifying conservatives — some of whom initially expressed disappointment that Olson, who represented Bush in the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, was reportedly passed over.
Attempting to head off a backlash reminiscent of the ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, administration officials invited key conservative leaders to the White House on Sunday and followed up in phone calls to others.
Conservative bloggers spent Monday trading gossip about the nominee, as well as speeches and op-eds penned by Mukasey, attempting to glean insights beyond what is already known about his record. The Senate GOP conference put out talking points largely limited to his work on terrorism-related cases.
With the Judiciary Committee under Democratic control, “we realize the president has somewhat limited options,” said Curt Levey, executive director of Committee for Justice, a conservative judicial group in Washington. “There is certainly no sense of betrayal. We are realistic about what an attorney general can do at this point,” with only 15 months left in the Bush administration.
Schumer, who led the inquiries that contributed to Gonzales’ resignation last week, acknowledged the need to extract more information for the congressional inquiries. But, he said, “to hasten an attitude of confrontation where the White House has taken a step forward would be a mistake.”
“This selection has meaning beyond the résumé of the man selected,” Schumer said. “For once, the president did not choose the path of most resistance … [Mukasey] is not a crony of the president. He is not a White House insider. That is a good sign.”
Schumer said he would ask “tough questions” of Mukasey.
But given Schumer’s favorable remarks already about Mukasey — the retired federal judge sat on a New York district court and turned up on Schumer’s short list in 2003 for potential Supreme Court nominees — the strategy for Democrats could be limited.
Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee largely praised the nomination, while promising a vigorous review of Mukasey’s record.
A wish list of attributes has emerged. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants evidence of his independence from the president and political influence. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), a presidential candidate, said he hopes Mukasey would “restore integrity” to the department.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, wants the most.
“I will also expect Judge Mukasey to commit to reversing the course set by Alberto Gonzales by fully cooperating with ongoing congressional oversight of this administration’s misconduct, and by always telling Congress and the public the truth, starting with his confirmation hearings,” Feingold said in a statement.
Republicans, meanwhile, wasted little time using the Democrats’ words against them.
“Now is the chance for our Democratic colleagues to prove they were serious when they cried out for new leadership at the Justice Department by following Senate precedent, weighing the nominee’s qualifications and voting in a timely fashion,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who met with Mukasey at the White House on Monday along with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
“I would hope they would not hold him hostage,” McConnell said, “forgetting the words of the senior senator from New York [Schumer], who has told us that ‘this nation needs a new attorney general, and it can’t afford to wait.’”
Martin Kady II contributed to this story.