Senate headed for another 'nuclear' fight

A controversial White House nominee for a human rights position is headed for a “nuclear” fight on the Senate floor.

Citing ethical concerns, Senate Republicans have balked at confirming Keith Harper, a former fundraiser for President Obama who has been nominated to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted last week to move forward with Harper’s nomination in a party-line vote. It is unclear when lawmakers will debate the nominee on the Senate floor, but it is shaping up as a partisan battle.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said Harper is unqualified to serve and cited inconsistencies in his communication with Congress.

McCain told The Hill he doesn’t know whether all Republicans will oppose the nomination when it reaches the Senate floor, but a Republican source said Harper is unlikely to get any support from GOP senators.

Reid last November held a vote to change Senate rules — the controversial nuclear option — so that most presidential nominations could be confirmed with a simple majority vote. The Senate has since confirmed 10 nominees using the new threshold.

Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, was a top bundler for the Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and a member of the administration’s transition team. He would be the first member of a federally recognized tribe to serve in an ambassador role.

Republicans in Congress have scrutinized Harper’s legal work, specifically when he served as co-counsel in the class-action lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar, representing hundreds of thousands of Native American plaintiffs.

Though the case was filed in 1996, its core conflict dates back to the Dawes Act of 1887, a botched U.S. policy which divided Indian tribal land into parcels and allotted them to individual Native Americans.

The plaintiffs sued the government for violating its trust duties to Native American beneficiaries, both by mismanaging tribal trust assets and failing to provide an accurate historical accounting of Individual Indian Money accounts.

In 2009, the federal government agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement. But four plaintiffs didn’t want to take the deal and appealed.

After they objected, a letter posted on the website partly maintained by lawyers in Harper’s firm listed the names, addresses and phone numbers of these individuals, urging others to contact them.

This led to angry phone calls, harassment and threats, according to two of the four plaintiffs. In a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), appellant Kimberly Craven said she used to be afraid to leave her house.

“I have been told I no longer have a career path where I work at a federal laboratory because individuals formerly associated with Mr. Harper who now work at the Department of Energy will not allow me to work on Tribal projects,” Craven, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of South Dakota, wrote.

Craven did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment.

Harper has denied involvement in the letter. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last December, Harper, who works for law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, said that he had no prior knowledge of the missive and that it was posted to the website by lead counsel Dennis Gingold of the Law Office of Dennis Gingold.

Gingold did not respond to requests for comment.

Harper testified to the Senate that the letter was removed shortly after it was posted, but a GOP aide said that it wasn’t pulled down until hours after his nomination hearing.

The aide added that Harper’s only concern about the letter was whether the addresses and telephone numbers being disclosed were already public information.

“This is a guy who is going to be working on human rights, but he certainly did not respect the human rights of the four [individuals],” McCain said at last week’s hearing.

McCain has also expressed concern about fees Harper received from the Cobell settlement.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which worked alongside plaintiff attorneys from the case’s inception in 1996 to 2006, has petitioned in court for $8.1 million in fees, NARF spokesman Ray Ramirez said. Harper was a senior staff attorney with the group for 11 years until he left in 2006.

Ramirez, citing current legal proceedings, declined to comment further.

A State Department official said Harper has the full support of the administration.

“We have full confidence he will be a excellent ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, if confirmed,” the official said. “I know a number of tribes have strongly endorsed his nomination. A majority of the comments from tribes about his nomination are overwhelmingly positive.”

Menendez has pointed out that organizations including the NAACP, the National Congress of American Indians and numerous tribes have endorsed Harper. NARF’s board passed a resolution last year in support of Harper’s nomination.

Richard Monette, professor of Native American law at the University of Wisconsin Law School and member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, pointed to the members of the Turtle Mountain tribe of North Dakota and Montana who feel they were shortchanged by the settlement Harper negotiated.

“They got a settlement that would right now to be making all those Indians rich,” Monette said. “This Cobell case was the epitome of hope for Native Americans. They were being told by Keith Harper, ‘We are going to get this done fairly,’ and it could not be further from the truth.”