Senate Republicans delay vote on attorney general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on Wednesday delayed a confirmation vote on attorney general nominee Eric Holder, some demanding assurances he would not prosecute U.S. agents for torture if they thought their methods were in compliance with the law.

Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder (R), nominee to be Attorney General, makes a point during in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“I want some assurance that we aren’t going to be engaged in any witch-hunts,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

Cornyn and other Republicans said prosecutions would be unfair to agents who thought they were operating according to law and could discourage future collection of intelligence.

With questions about torture and other matters, Republicans invoked their right to delay for one week the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on Holder, who had already been expected to endure one of the rockier confirmation processes in President Barack Obama’s new cabinet.

Holder still appears virtually certain to eventually win confirmation by the full Senate.

But Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s ranking Republican, said members of his party on the panel wanted more time to examine the nominee.

Holder is a former judge and prosecutor who served as deputy attorney general in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Democrats voiced support for the nominee who would be the first black U.S. attorney general.

“With Eric Holder, he will be approved. He is a fine man with a great record,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters.

During his confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee last week, Holder broke with the Bush administration and said waterboarding, an interrogation technique that involves simulated drowning, was torture and thus illegal.

Asked if he would prosecute for torture, Holder said “no one is above the law.” But he also quoted Obama about the need to move ahead.

Cornyn agreed, saying, “I frankly like what President Obama says. He says we need to be looking forward, not backward.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he did not expect Holder to go beyond what he said at the hearing.

“No prosecutor puts people off limits,” Leahy added.

Former President George W. Bush insisted that his administration did not torture. But the CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding on three suspected foreign enemy combatants. It says it has stopped the practice.

Holder said he would ensure that interrogations complied with treaty obligations and were effective. He pledged to review all Justice Department legal opinions on the matter.

His comments signaled that Obama’s Justice Department would not tolerate waterboarding, though it remained unclear whether Holder would seek to prosecute past instances.

Republicans could raise a procedural roadblock in the 100-member Senate against Holder, but Democrats have said they are confident that they could overcome that.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell)

Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Chris Wilson