By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is turning to Neil Eggleston, a veteran of the Whitewater and Iran-Contra confrontations between Capitol Hill and the White House, to help guide his administration through what could be stormy years ahead with Congress.
Obama on Monday named Eggleston, a Washington lawyer who specializes in representing high-profile public figures in government investigations, as the next White House counsel. He replaces Kathryn Ruemmler, who has been seeking to vacate the White House hot seat for months.
If Republicans take control of the Senate and keep the House in November elections, Eggleston’s past experiences as associate White House counsel for President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater congressional hearings and deputy chief counsel of the House Iran-Contra Committee could put him on solid ground.
Another key task facing the new White House lawyer is drawing up a list of potential nominees to fill the Supreme Court seat held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is speculation that Ginsburg, who is 81, will retire next year.
Eggleston will also likely face pressure from Latinos, a key constituency for Obama, to change federal rules to make deportations less frequent. Immigration advocates say Obama has not done enough to focus deportations solely on immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
When Ruemmler became White House counsel three years ago, just the third woman to hold that job, she was 40 years old and relatively unknown despite having served as a top prosecutor in the Justice Department.
She dealt head-on with long-standing criticism of the administration’s poor record in getting judges confirmed to the federal bench by pushing for a change to Senate rules that allowed confirmation of judges and most other appointees with a simple majority instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes.
That move greatly improved Obama’s record on judicial confirmations, but it provoked enmity from Senate Republicans, who have been able to block judges by other means.
Another tactic used by Ruemmler to get around Republican filibusters — recess appointments when Congress is out of town — backfired when an appeals court issued a decision that virtually eliminated any further use of such methods. The Supreme Court is about to decide an appeal of that decision, and that may be another headache for Eggleston.
Ruemmler is said to have advised Obama to seek congressional approval to bomb Syria over what some observers say its use of chemical weapons, and was a strong proponent of keeping executive branch documents from Congress based on the principle of executive privilege.
Eggleston, who served as a law clerk to former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York in the 1980s before going to work for the Iran-Contra Committee in 1987. In that role, he questioned Reagan administration officials such as former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in highly publicized public hearings.
In 1994, Eggleston was himself summoned before the Senate to testify about Whitewater and his understanding of possibly improper White House knowledge of a banking investigation involving a Clinton associate in Arkansas.
He left the pressure-cooker job in the White House after only a year to go into private practice, but was recalled to testify by the Senate two years later when his notes of investigative interviews in the White House were reported missing.
Photo: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT