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Obama Nominee For Justice Post Left In Limbo

Jim Cole, shown in 2000, has been waiting more than 63 days for a confirmation vote in the Senate after being nominated by President Obama to be deputy attorney general.
Bill Haber
Jim Cole, shown in 2000, has been waiting more than 63 days for a confirmation vote in the Senate after being nominated by President Obama to be deputy attorney general.

Congress returns Monday from its break for the midterm elections, and the lame-duck Senate has more work on its calendar than time to get it done.

Some of the people vying for room on the Senate floor are key Obama nominees, including the right-hand man at the Justice Department and nearly two dozen federal judge candidates.

Think of the Senate calendar as a game of musical chairs: There are lots of people and priorities racing around, hoping they will find a seat when the music stops and Congress leaves town for the holidays.

One of them is Jim Cole. The White House nominated him almost six months ago to be the Justice Department's deputy attorney general, kind of like the chief operating officer for the entire department.

Cole, who started his career as a public corruption prosecutor, went on to build a lucrative private law practice. He is attracting bipartisan support from lawyers he worked with over the past three decades.

Fred Fielding, a White House counsel for President George W. Bush, said, "Jim Cole combines all the qualities you want in a 'citizen public servant' -- he understands both sides of the street, is smart and tenacious, and is a person of unquestioned honor and integrity."‪

But Cole now holds a record he would rather avoid: According to statistics provided by Democrats, he's become the longest-waiting deputy attorney general candidate since before the Reagan administration.

Cole has waited more than 63 days. The last person to even come close, in the Reagan years, waited 61 days -- in part because of a summer recess in Congress, the report said.

Washington lawyer Bill Jeffress says Cole has waited long enough.

"The deputy attorney general job is the person who actually runs the Justice Department day to day," said Jeffress, who has written to urge the Senate to confirm Cole, "the person who is the decision-maker on many, many criminal cases, the person who is the decision-maker on many, many personnel issues. And it's extremely important to have somebody who not only has law enforcement experience but who is a good manager."

Waiting For A Vote

Shortly after Cole's nomination in May, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions criticized him for his work in private legal practice, monitoring the fallen insurance giant AIG, and for his approach to national security.

"He's written an op-ed, for example, that suggests that he believes the 9/11 attacks were criminal acts, not acts of war," Sessions told NPR at the time. "Apparently, he didn't do so well in his oversight with AIG. And so I do believe that this won't be just a coronation."

It's been far from a coronation: Even Sessions finally said he thought Cole would be confirmed, back in July. Cole got through the Judiciary Committee that month on a party-line vote.

But then, as with so many other issues this year, he got stuck waiting for a vote on the Senate floor.

The Justice Department has had to work around Cole's absence.

If confirmed, he would be one of a few officials authorized to sign surveillance warrants in national security cases. The delay is putting pressure on a small group of officials who can.

Ken Wainstein ran the Justice Department's national security unit in the Bush years, and he said there's another cost: to the department's prerogative in administration-wide debates.

"The department is increasingly involved in counterterrorism-related issues, and it's important that there be a strong voice at the table in those deputies' committee meetings on behalf of the Department of Justice," Wainstein said. "And that voice is strongest when it comes from a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed deputy attorney general."

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an e-mail that Reid wants to push ahead on as many nominations as possible. But, he said, there's a long list of things to do and not a lot of time to do them.

Judicial Nominees On Hold

Nearly two dozen federal judges are waiting for Senate votes, too.

Nan Aron, who runs the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, is lobbying for movement on Obama's judicial nominees. And Aron says the numbers tell a bleak story.

"Bush had twice as many judges confirmed than Obama at this moment in time, and President Clinton had three times as many judicial nominees confirmed, so this situation has reached crisis proportion," Aron said.

Republicans, on the other hand, take issue with the characterization that there's a judicial vacancy crisis. They say it's up to Senate Democrats to schedule the votes on nominees and to set the priorities on the legislative calendar.

Although the White House and Senate Democrats say the law enforcement nominees remain a high priority, they're putting more weight behind Jack Lew, the candidate to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

Cole at the Justice Department and 23 judge candidates are still waiting to hear whether they will be left without a chair when the music stops in the Senate in three weeks.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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