Five candidates to replace Holder

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Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement Thursday that he’s stepping down after six years heading the Justice Department set tongues wagging in Washington about who might succeed him.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday the White House is already evaluating candidates to replace Holder and that the selection would be a “high priority.” He said the Senate should be prepared to act promptly.

President Obama has plenty of past and present insiders to choose from, but could also enlist a high-profile rising star.

{mosads}The timing of the president’s nomination will play a critical role in the confirmation process. If Obama picks a more controversial nominee, Senate Democrats might try to ram it through in the lame-duck session after the election — particularly if Republicans win the majority in November.

One way that Obama could avoid a confirmation fight would be by picking a nominee from the Senate. Several Democrats, including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), have experience as prosecutors.

However, Whitehouse and another prominent candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), quickly said they were not interested in succeeding Holder. 

“My heart’s desire is representing Rhode Island in the Senate, and I have no interest in other positions,” Whitehouse told The Hill. 

That’s a sign that Obama might have trouble finding someone willing to take the tough job, particularly with the White House quickly approaching lame-duck territory. 

Here are five people who might be willing to take the plunge. 

1.) Don Verrilli

Verrilli, who serves as the nation’s solicitor general, is a longtime Obama aide thought to be well liked within both the Justice Department and the West Wing.

A Columbia Law grad, Verrilli worked for 25 years in private practice, where he specialized in First Amendment law on behalf of corporate clients — famously leading copyright infringement cases by Viacom against YouTube and the recording industry against peer-to-peer file-sharing service Grokster. But Verrilli also devoted significant pro-bono time to defending death row inmates, and won a landmark Supreme Court case establishing specific guidelines for the right of “effective assistance” of legal counsel.

Verrilli earned his greatest national prominence when he argued on behalf of the Obama administration in the 2012 Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of ObamaCare. Although legal experts initially panned his performance, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberal bloc to uphold the vast majority of the law.

Verrilli was confirmed as solicitor general in a 72-16 vote in 2011, winning the support of 26 Republicans.

2.) Janet Napolitano

The former Arizona governor, state attorney general and federal prosecutor was said to be interested in replacing Holder at DOJ when she was still serving as Obama’s Homeland Security secretary. But Holder stayed and on and Napolitano left Washington last year to take a lucrative job as the first female president of the massive University of California system.

She unquestionably has the resume to lead the DOJ: former President Clinton appointed her U.S. Attorney for Arizona in 1993, and she later successfully ran for Arizona attorney general and governor in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Napolitano endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 — even though Clinton’s husband had helped launch her political career — and Obama brought Napolitano into his Cabinet as DHS secretary.

Still, it might be difficult for Napolitano to leave her current job after such a short time. She is right in the middle of trying to streamline the community-college-to-university transfer process and launching pet projects like a $250 million venture capital fund to finance start-up companies. Napolitano spokesman Steve Montiel told The Hill his boss is “fully engaged” as president of the UC system.

3.) Kamala Harris

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is widely considered as one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, and is expected to eventually seek either the governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat. A stint in Washington could help raise her profile for such a campaign, and she has prominent boosters on Capitol Hill — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) among them.

Harris has said that she opposes the death penalty and was among the most persistent state attorneys general in investigating banks for mortgage practices — two potential stumbling blocks with Republican lawmakers. She’s also signaled her support for San Francisco’s immigration policy, which prevents law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status during a criminal investigation. Her advocacy on behalf of gun control programs could also draw powerful interest groups like the National Rifle Association into a confirmation battle.

But Obama has spoken fondly of Harris — perhaps too fondly. Last year, the president created a mild controversy when, during a fundraiser, he called Harris the “best-looking attorney general in the country.” Obama later called her to apologize, and then-White House press secretary Jay Carney said the pair were “old friends and good friends and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities.”

UPDATE: Shortly after this story was published, Harris put out a statement saying she plans to stay at her current position. “I am honored to even be mentioned, but intend to continue my work for the people of California as Attorney General,” Harris said.

4.) Preet Bharara

As the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Bharara is familiar with the high-wire political balancing act required of an attorney general.

As the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara led the prosecution of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, scored the indictment against Switzerland’s oldest financial bank and aggressively pursued insider trading cases.

He also has threatened legal action against the Riker’s Island prison over civil rights abuses at the complex, and clashed publicly with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the Democrat’s decision to eliminate an anti-corruption commission.

Bharara has signaled his ambitions, appearing on the cover of Time magazine under the banner “This man is busting Wall St” and becoming a regular at high-profile political, media and celebrity events.

Bharara also has ties to Capitol Hill that could help in a confirmation fight, previously serving as chief counsel to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). But Bharara’s aggressive prosecution of Wall Street — as well as work helping to lead the investigation into the Bush administration’s firings of United States attorneys — could make it difficult to win over GOP votes.

5.) Tony West

Tony West, who earlier this month departed his job as the No. 3 official at the Justice Department to take a job at Pepsico, has deep roots both in the administration and Democratic circles.

West led the department’s civil division for much of the Obama administration, and implemented the decision to not defend aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He also spearheaded the department’s efforts to force big banks to pay major settlements over the mortgage-backed securities that contributed to the financial crisis, although he caught some criticism for a reluctance to prosecute individual bankers for their role.

His wife, Maya Harris, is a senior fellow at the influential Center for American Progress, and his sister-in-law is California Attorney General Kamala Harris — another potential Holder replacement.

He might also be a favorite of Holder, who described him during his exit from the department as “a close advisor and good friend.” Holder also said he expected him to return to the agency before long, though he did not elaborate.

Ben Goad contributed to this report. 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein Eric Holder Hillary Clinton Sheldon Whitehouse
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