WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans, who acted like lions in challenging Eric Holder, turned into lambs Wednesday as they joined Democrats in recommending President Barack Obama's choice for attorney general.
The Judiciary Committee voted 17-2 to endorse Holder, with two Republicans opposing the nomination _ John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. The Senate could vote as early as Thursday to confirm Holder as the first African-American to lead the Justice Department.
Committee Republicans and Democrats described Holder as experienced, independent, tough on crime and opposed to torture. Holder has served as a federal prosecutor, judge, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and deputy attorney general in Bill Clinton's presidency. Senators also said the nominee was an individual willing to acknowledge his mistakes.
"He made some big mistakes when he should have really dug his heels in," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who spoke of Holder's "extraordinary experience." "He indicated he understands that error."
At issue for Republicans was Holder's role in Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose wife was a major Democratic donor. Senators asked Holder why he backed pardoning Rich and questioned his recommendation to commute the sentences of Puerto Rican nationalists who belonged to a group that carried out murders, robberies and bombings. Holder acknowledged his mistake in the Rich case, but defended his decision in the case of the nationalists, saying they did not commit the violent acts.
Cornyn criticized Holder's role in the pardons and questioned whether he would protect intelligence agents who participated in harsh interrogations of captured terrorists. Coburn has questioned whether Holder would support an individual's right to keep and bear arms.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, said it would be "Alice in Wonderland" for Holder to make a blanket promise not to prosecute U.S. agents who participated in harsh interrogations. Leahy said he would vote against a nominee who made such a promise without even examining the circumstances.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he supports Holder's view that the country needs to interrogate terrorism suspects based on American values.
"I am confident this new attorney general will have a balanced approach and I look forward to working with him. I know he's made mistakes and so have I," Graham said.
In support of the nomination, Democrats provided endorsement letters from law enforcement organizations, civil rights leaders, victims' rights advocates and former Republican officials _ a number that reached 130.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that with Holder as attorney general, "Waterboarding is history. Guantanamo Bay is history." Holder told his confirmation hearing that waterboarding, which simulates drowning, is torture.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Holder would be independent. "Would he sit in the Oval Office and say, 'Mr. President, with all due respect you're wrong?' I think he would."