WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid vowed on Wednesday to block former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson from becoming attorney general if President George W. Bush nominates him to replace Alberto Gonzales.
Congressional and administration officials have described Olson as a leading contender for the job as chief U.S. law enforcement officer, but Reid declared, “Ted Olson will not be confirmed” by the Senate.
“He’s a partisan, and the last thing we need as an attorney general is a partisan,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told Reuters in a brief hallway interview on Capitol Hill.
Reid and other Democrats argue that after Gonzales’ stormy tenure the Justice Department needs to become less political.
Gonzales resigned last month, effective next Monday, amid a series of congressional investigations into his firing of federal prosecutors and his handling of Bush’s domestic spying program.
White House press secretary Tony Snow, amid word that Bush was nearly ready to pick a new attorney general, said, “We don’t have a decision yet.”
Snow brushed off Reid’s opposition, saying, “The president will pick who he thinks is best.”
Current and former administration officials said they did not expect a decision until next week at the earliest.
“Something happened. I don’t know what,” said one official, who had earlier expected an announcement this week.
Olson has been among a handful of possible nominees to head the U.S. Justice Department that the White House had been considering, congressional and administration officials said.
Others include federal appeals Judge Laurence Silberman, former Deputy Attorneys General George Terwilliger III and Larry Thompson, and Paul Clement, the current solicitor general.
The solicitor general serves as the administration’s chief advocate in cases before the Supreme Court.
One Justice Department official said Thompson was widely liked and highly regarded. “People here would be happy with Ted, but they would be thrilled with Larry,” the official said.
Olson was confirmed by the Senate in 2001 as solicitor general on a largely party-line vote of 51-47. Democrats had accused him of underplaying his role in a multimillion-dollar conservative effort to dig up scandals to undermine Democrat Bill Clinton when he was president.
Olson played a key role in defending the administration’s controversial legal strategy in the war on terrorism as solicitor general from 2001 to 2004.
His then-wife, Barbara Olson, a conservative television commentator and author, died in the September 11 attacks when the hijacked plane she was on crashed into the Pentagon. Olson has since remarried.
Reid said selection of Olson, who represented Bush in the court fight over the 2000 presidential election, as attorney general would trigger a confirmation battle.
Democrats control the Senate 51-49. But even if a few Democrats backed Olson, Reid could raise a procedural roadblock that would need 60 votes to clear.
“I will do everything within my power as majority leader to stop Ted Olson from being confirmed,” Reid told Reuters.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress had demanded the resignation of Gonzales over his firing of nine federal prosecutors last year, dismissals that critics charged appeared to be politically motivated.
Mostly Democratic lawmakers also accused Gonzales of giving misleading and possibly false testimony before Congress about his firing of the prosecutors and the administration’s warrantless spying program.
Additional reporting by James Vicini and Caren Bohan