Senate panel OKs Holder as attorney general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee approved the nomination of Eric Holder to be the first black attorney general on Wednesday and lead President Barack Obama’s effort to close the Guantanamo prison.

Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to be Attorney General, departs for a break in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17-2 to confirm Holder, a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the full Senate would vote on Thursday and the panel’s strong approval was a sign Holder would be easily confirmed.

Obama last week designated his attorney general to oversee the closing of the prison for suspected terrorists at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prison has become an international symbol for U.S. abuses in fighting terrorism.

Holder said in his Senate confirmation hearing on January 15 that it would take longer to devise a system to replace Guantanamo than some have hoped. He will also face challenging decisions such as how to address the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding, an interrogation technique which Holder has denounced as torture.

Holder’s nomination had been questioned over issues including his support for controversial pardons issued by Clinton, and Republicans had delayed the committee vote for a week.

“Eric Holder is a good man. He’s a decent man. He’s a public servant committed to the rule of law and he will be a good attorney general,” Leahy said before the vote.

Two of the committee’s eight Republicans voted against Holder. One, John Cornyn of Texas, said he had doubts about Holder’s judgment, independence and views on fighting terrorism.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, supported Holder’s nomination despite expressing earlier concerns.

Holder had addressed a major criticism by Republicans and acknowledged erring when he supported Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001, just before leaving the White House.

“I think it was important that Mr. Holder was willing to admit candidly to his mistake,” Specter said.

During his confirmation hearings Holder broke with the Bush administration to say flatly that waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, was torture.

Torture is illegal under U.S. and international law. Some Republicans, as well as Obama’s choice to head the U.S. network of spy agencies, Dennis Blair, have said officially that declaring waterboarding to be torture could put interrogators in legal jeopardy.

Former President George W. Bush denied his administration used torture, and intelligence officials said they acted with Justice Department approval.

Cornyn, outlining his opposition, said, “Mr. Holder’s actions as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration demonstrate that he should not be confirmed.”

Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who supported Holder, said he was nevertheless “a little worried” about some of Obama’s picks to fill other Justice Department positions and vowed to closely scrutinized their records.

Sessions did not identify which nominees he was concerned about. Obama’s choice to head the department’s office of legal counsel, Dawn Johnsen, has been a sharp critic of Bush’s detainee treatment policies and their legal justification.

Lanny Breuer, a prominent white-collar attorney chosen to head the criminal division, has also drawn critical comments from some Republican aides for ties to the Clinton administration.

Breuer represented Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment scandal and former Clinton national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger over accusations he took classified documents from U.S. archives.

Among several high profile clients facing congressional investigations, Breuer also represented baseball pitcher Roger Clemens during congressional steroid hearings.

Editing by David Wiessler