By Timothy M. Phelps and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — A week after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced plans to step down, three administration insiders lead the president’s short list to replace him, according to sources inside and outside the White House.
Solicitor Gen. Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who successfully argued the administration’s case for the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court, is mentioned more frequently than the other top candidates: Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, a progressive considered by the White House to be a Cabinet standout, and former White House Counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler.
Perez was a lightening rod for Republican criticism when he headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and barely squeezed through his confirmation last year. His nomination as America’s top law enforcement official would provoke a major battle in the Senate.
White House officials say the president has not yet made a decision and no announcement is imminent, despite criticism that they should have been prepared to nominate someone immediately given Holder’s frequent signals that he planned to leave. Now, the administration will move swiftly to win confirmation in the current, Democratic-controlled Senate in case Republicans take over the chamber after the November election.
Each of the three top contenders has garnered Obama’s trust, although Verrilli and Ruemmler have a longer history and closer relationships with the president. Perez, on the other hand, could bolster Obama’s flagging support from the party’s Latino base, which has been frustrated by the White House’s slow progress on immigration reform.
Of the three, Verrilli would be the low-maintenance choice. He’s respected within the White House for his legal mind and grasp of issues. Most agree he would likely have the least contentious nomination process before a potentially hostile Congress because of his even temperament and professorial demeanor.
“They really need that steady hand,” said a former Justice Department official, who did not want to be identified speaking about the nomination process.
One question facing the president will be whether to use the appointment to add diversity to his Cabinet. Obama took heat last year for letting the number of women, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans slide in his second-term Cabinet. Since then, Obama has pushed those numbers up. But naming Verrilli would leave Obama with all white men as his highest-profile department secretaries at State, Defense, Treasury and Justice.
A woman like Ruemmler, now working in private practice, would increase diversity. And perhaps more important for the White House, she would mark the return of a trusted adviser who is already up to speed on the legal issues. As the president’s lawyer for three years, Ruemmler was involved in nearly every major decision and crisis.
But Ruemmler, unlike Perez and Verrilli, has never been through the Senate confirmation, which could slow down a nomination that will have little time to spare if Republicans gain the six extra Senate seats they need to take control of the chamber in January. As White House counsel, she inevitably tangled with Republicans at times, which could make her a more difficult nominee to confirm than Verrilli.
Perez is undoubtedly the pick most likely to spark a standoff with the Senate, leaving some to assume his name was being floated primarily to appease the president’s liberal base. But a White House official insisted the Labor secretary is a viable candidate and noted that the president was impressed by how Perez handled his confirmation fight.
Holder has said he will stay in the job until his replacement is confirmed.
Some Republican senators have already signaled they are prepared for a battle over the nomination, which the White House expects to be handled during the post-election lame-duck session.
But there is political risk to delaying confirmation of a national-security-related post such as attorney general amid the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria. Republicans might also think twice before blocking a Latino nominee, particularly as the party is already waging a fight against the president’s plans to take executive actions to ease deportations of some immigrants.
As Obama’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Perez was heavily criticized by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, over what Grassley characterized as a “shady” deal in which the Justice Department allegedly dropped a lawsuit against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for the city’s dismissing separate civil rights litigation against the federal government.
Political analysts say another potential problem with a Perez nomination would be whether some moderate Democrats would support him. Democrats in March helped quash the nomination of Debo Adegbile, Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, because he was perceived by some as too liberal.
“The president saw that if he goes with a strong progressive, he is not necessarily guaranteed to pick up all the Democratic votes,” said Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who worked in the Senate with Perez. “That is problematic.”
Several other names still on the “long list” for the nomination include former U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride of Virginia and Jenny Durkan, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington.
Photo: cliff1066 via Flickr