U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general has been approved by a Senate committee and could be confirmed by the full Senate by the end of the week. The treatment of terror suspects was one of the main issues in Eric Holder's confirmation hearings.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17-2 in favor of sending Eric Holder's nomination to the full Senate. If he is confirmed, Holder will become the first African-American to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official.
Early in his confirmation hearings, the 58-year-old attorney assured senators that above all, he will uphold the law.
"There has to be a distance between me and the president, but I want to assure you and the American people that I will be an independent attorney general," he said. "I will be the people's lawyer."
Most Republicans on the committee joined Democrats in voting for Holder. Some who had criticized him earlier reversed themselves and decided that he was qualified for the job.
One of the two who voted "no" was Republican John Cornyn, who had delayed the confirmation hearings by a week because of his concerns. Holder testified in his hearings that an especially harsh interrogation technique known as "waterboarding" is torture.
"I agree with you, Mr. Chairman," Holder said. "Waterboarding is torture."
Cornyn demanded but did not get Holder's assurance that he would not prosecute intelligence agents who took part in waterboarding during the Bush administration.
"He did not give an answer to the question of whether he would uphold congressional intent in making sure that immunity was provided to intelligence officials and others who engaged in activity that was necessary to protect our country, but which they were also advised was entirely lawful," he said.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he agreed with Holder's positions against waterboarding and the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where terror suspects have been held, and that the Justice Deparment should be independent of the White House.
"I support his confirmation because, among other things, he is poised to make history," he said. "Under his tenure, waterboarding will be history. Guantanamo Bay will be history, and the rancid political considerations at the Department of Justice will be history."
The Judiciary Committee will also deal with the torture issue when it considers the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to lead the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. During the Bush administration, that office issued legal opinions which enabled harsh interrogation techniques and the detention of terror suspects.
Holder was also criticized in the hearings for his role in controversial pardons issued just before President Bill Clinton left office in 2001. Holder admitted to the committee that he made a mistake when he backed Mr. Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose wife was a major Democratic Party donor.
Senator Cornyn said Holder behaved inappropriately and should not be attorney general.
"Regrettably, I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Holder's actions as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration demonstrate that he should not be confirmed," he said.
But several senators, including Republican Arlen Specter, praised Holder for his willingness to admit his mistake. Specter had also opposed Holder's confirmation, but changed his mind and voted in favor.
"I think it is important that Mr. Holder was willing to admit candidly his mistake on the Marc Rich pardon," he said.
Holder's nomination moves on to the full Senate, where it is expected to be confirmed quickly.