WASHINGTON U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has conditionally offered Eric Holder the job as attorney general, and the former top Clinton administration official has accepted, a senior Democrat said on Tuesday.
Before the offer becomes official, Obama's team wants to determine if Holder could win Senate confirmation with broad bipartisan support and clean up a Justice Department wracked by scandals during George W. Bush's presidency, the Democrat said.
"We know we have the votes for Senate confirmation, but we want to make sure he would have broad support so he can make needed reforms," said the Democrat, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said of Holder, "He would make an outstanding nominee, and should have the support of senators from both sides of the aisle if President-elect Obama were to choose him for this critical position."
Since Obama's election two weeks ago, the 57-year-old Holder, the deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, has emerged as the top candidate for the job as the nation's top law enforcement and legal officer who deals with issues like terrorism and crime.
Obama is the first black elected president, and Holder would be the first black to head the Justice Department.
As attorney general, Holder would play a key role in setting policy on prosecuting terrorism cases while protecting civil liberties.
Like Obama, Holder has said the United States must reverse "the disastrous course" set by the Bush administration in the struggle against terrorism by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba that now holds about 250 prisoners.
Holder also has said the United States must stop sending individuals to nations that engage in torture, must cease warrantless domestic surveillance and must declare without qualification the United States does not torture people.
The Bush administration, which denies torturing suspects, has been criticized by human rights groups for using waterboarding, a widely condemned technique that simulates drowning, and other tough interrogation methods on al Qaeda suspects captured after the September 11 attacks.
The source said Democrats in the Senate were trying to gauge how much opposition there would be to Holder from Republicans over his role in Clinton's controversial 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
Holder at the time said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on the pardon. Justice Department prosecutors were upset he did not oppose the pardon, issued on Clinton's last day in office. Rich's ex-wife was a major donor to Clinton and the Democratic Party.
The senior Democrat said at this point the Rich pardon does not appear to be "a fatal flaw concern."
The Justice Department's inspector general last week listed "restoring confidence" at number five among the department's top 10 challenges for 2008.
"The immediate challenge for the attorney general and the department's leadership is to ensure that the serious problems and misconduct we found regarding politicized hiring for career positions and the dismissal of U.S. attorneys do not recur," his report said.
The scandals which hurt the Justice Department's reputation included findings that department officials used political factors in the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors and other Justice Department employees.
Two Justice Department officials said Holder, a former prosecutor who handled corruption cases, a local judge and then the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., was generally respected, admired and well regarded by career employees.
"We're very happy with the choice," said one official who knew Holder when he had previously been at the department.
Holder helped vet candidates to become Obama's vice presidential running mate and has been a senior legal adviser for Obama's presidential campaign.
A partner at the law firm Covington & Burling in the District of Columbia, Holder was not immediately available for comment.
(additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)