By Alexander Bolton - 10/30/09 10:00 AM EDT
National liberal groups are pressing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to act on one of President Obama’s most controversial nominees.
Nearly 40 organizations have called on Reid to schedule a vote on Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s pick to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is tasked with providing legal advice to the president.
Johnsen has run into strong Republican opposition because of her statements on sensitive political issues ranging from abortion to voter ID law. But her writings on presidential powers over suspected terrorists in military custody and other national security issues may be giving some Democrats political heartburn.
Left-leaning groups including People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Feminist Majority and the National Council of La Raza have sent a letter to Reid calling the delay “extraordinary and unacceptable.”
“We trust he can do it and he has to put his shoulder to the wheel,” said Marge Baker, of People for the American Way. “I think it’s time to figure when to schedule this for a vote.”
Reid has had an up-and-down relationship with liberal activists this year. Some have criticized him for not showing stronger leadership, but this week many gave him high praise for his decision to include a government-run health insurance plan in the Senate healthcare bill.
The groups have long been pressing Reid behind the scenes to take action on the stalled nominees. On Thursday the Democratic leader turned the spotlight on the GOP, slamming the other side of the aisle for its strategy of blocking nominations.
“Senate Republicans are simply so opposed to everything, absolutely everything, that they even oppose putting people in some of the most important positions in government,” Reid said on the Senate floor, criticizing the GOP for stalling Obama’s pick for surgeon general amid an outbreak of the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.
Leading liberal activists have also blasted Senate Republicans for what they call the unprecedented obstruction of executive branch nominees. But some admit to growing a little frustrated with Reid for not making Johnsen a higher priority.
“I was certainly hearing that among the groups,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “There’s frustration she’s not at the top of the list. The groups really believe the votes are there.”
Johnsen has rankled a few Democrats with her comments over the years. Recently she said the Obama administration “should order an immediate review to determine which detainees should be released and which transferred to secure facilities within the United States for further processing,” a view relevant to the legal controversy surrounding the operation of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Earlier this year, Senate Democrats voted overwhelmingly to prohibit funding to transfer detainees from Guantánamo Bay to the U.S.
Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) are two Democrats who have said they would oppose Johnsen.
Nelson reaffirmed his position in an interview Thursday, explaining that he objected to Johnsen’s style of advocacy when she served as the legal director of NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1988 to 1993.
Nelson said that Johnsen at times overstepped the bounds of lawyerly advocacy to express her personal views. He fears she would do the same as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, a position that is supposed to give the president dispassionate legal advice. Nelson said he was also concerned about some of her national security stances.
Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America disputed Nelson’s criticism by noting that Johnsen has support from “both sides of the aisle.”
Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University, has the support of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), balancing Nelson’s opposition. Some liberal activists think that Specter could be persuaded to change his position now that he is facing a Democratic primary challenge next year.
Nelson said that Reid has not spoken to him about voting on Johnsen’s nomination.
Liberal activists say the head of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel is too important to leave without a leader and Johnsen has an excellent track record.
“It’s one of the most important open positions in the Justice Department and one of the key positions that has not been filled,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center, one of the signatories. “It provides unbiased legal advice about the many issues the president confronts.
“Johnsen is a superb lawyer and has experience giving answers based on the law,” she said.
Liberal leaders say Senate Republicans have waged an “unprecedented” effort to slow or block executive branch nominees.
In September, they sent a strongly worded letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calling for an “up-or-down vote” on Johnsen.
Now groups believe the votes are there and have turned their attention to Reid.
Liberal groups acknowledge that Republicans have made it difficult for Reid to schedule votes on nominees because they have forced the leader to schedule time-consuming procedural votes to cut off filibusters.
“In just the first 9 months of the Obama Administration, the minority has already forced cloture votes on 5 nominees,” the groups noted in the letter to Reid. “Another 37 executive nominations are currently on the Senate’s Executive Calendar, many of which have been pending for some time, raising the specter of yet more unprecedented and unnecessary cloture votes to fill key Administration positions.”
The groups say it is time for Reid to take action and confront the Republican tactics.
“This degree of obstruction cannot be tolerated,” they wrote. “It throws sand in the gears of executive branch departments and agencies that are serving critical public needs.”