By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call
WASHINGTON — The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway — a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.
From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him in the short term to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his legacy but also for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.
Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Pressing one of them into service anyway would almost guarantee a successor to Eric H. Holder Jr. is confirmed without much fuss during the lame-duck session — no matter which party wins senatorial control for the next Congress. If Republicans triumph, they will push to minimize what gets done between Veterans Day and Christmas, but they’d very likely make an exception for a nominee who’s standing with them in the well of the chamber.
It’s been a quarter-century since the Senate rejected one of its own for a Cabinet post — the voluble retired Sen. John Tower of Texas to run the Pentagon in 1989 — and the current possibilities are all members of the club in good standing. (The three Cabinet secretaries Obama has plucked from the Senate so far (Hillary Rodham Clinton, John F. Kerry and Ken Salazar) were confirmed with a combined total of five “no” votes.)
While their Republican colleagues wouldn’t have much nice to say about any of their liberal records on the extensive array of issues in the Justice Department’s portfolio, it’s hard to see any being labeled as either unqualified or outside the ideological mainstream.
All have been members of the Judiciary Committee since early in their Senate tenures, which in each case was preceded by extensive prosecutorial experience. Blumenthal and Whitehouse have been both attorney general and United States attorney for their states, while Klobuchar was the district attorney in Minneapolis for eight years.
No matter whom he selects, Obama will surely point to the precedent of eight years ago, when Democrats won control of the Senate in President George W. Bush’s second midterm but were unanimous in voting to confirm Robert M. Gates as defense secretary during the lame duck. (His White House already is noting the statistic.)
And, given how the filibuster has been neutralized as a weapon for thwarting nominations, at least until December the president has the muscle to brush past GOP entreaties that he wait on an attorney general nomination until next year.
Smart money says Obama will wield that power, and that he won’t decide to mitigate the sting by nominating a senator.
No one in the trio being mentioned is particularly close to the president, and for his second-term Cabinet he’s shown a pattern of turning to people he’s worked with closely. Former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Solicitor General Donald M. Verrilli Jr. would better fill that bill.
But Obama also has shown desire to name “firsts” to his senior team, and none of the three senators embody any sort of path-breaking diversity. Plenty of other people getting mentioned do: Either California Attorney General Kamala Harris or the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta Lynch, would become the first African-American woman to run Justice; the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, would be the first Indian-American member of the Cabinet; the just-departed U.S. attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan, would be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary.
For any of them, becoming the 83rd attorney general would be the capstone on a distinguished legal career and could become the launching pad for any additional aspirations to be in public life — in elected office or on the bench.
So it’s highly likely each would jump at the chance to take on what will likely turn out to be a thankless job lasting no longer than two years. On an enormous collection of hot-button issues — voting rights, criminal sentencing, terrorist interrogations, drones and telephone records collection, to name just a few — the next attorney general’s overriding task will be to do what’s possible to tamp down the controversies begun on Holder’s watch. Any initiatives he or she might dream up won’t even be worth unveiling because they would have such little chance of winning over congressional Republicans.
The three senators certainly don’t need the hassle. If this were 2017, each would be wide open to getting in on the ground floor of a new Democratic administration — especially if the alternative is hanging on to their seemingly very safe seats but enduring a long stretch in the senatorial minority. (Blumenthal, who’s tamped down the recent speculation less emphatically than the others, will turn 70 when his current term is up in two years. Whitehouse will be 63 and Klobuchar 58 when they next face the voters, in 2018.)
At the moment, there is also the Senate balance of power to consider — no small matter given how close the partisan split looks to be.
Only promoting Klobuchar would guarantee no shrinkage in the Democratic ranks during the 114th Congress. That’s because Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is cruising toward re-election and is empowered to appoint a senator to serve two full years. In Connecticut, even if Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wins his toss-up contest, his appointee could serve only until a hotly contested special election 32 weeks later. And Rhode Island is among the four states where the governor has no Senate appointment power, meaning one of its seats would be vacant until the voters filled it in the spring.
Senior Editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.
AFP Photo/Alex Wong