Sen. Hatch to back Eric Holder for AG

The former Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will support Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWhat should Democrats do next, after Mueller's report? GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight Jeff Sessions returns to Justice Department to retrieve Cabinet chair MORE's nomination for attorney general, giving him a major boost toward confirmation.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchNY's political prosecution of Manafort should scare us all Congress must break its addiction to unjust tax extenders The FDA crackdown on dietary supplements is inadequate MORE (Utah), who chaired the panel for a decade beginning in 1995, told The Hill that he will support Holder.

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“I intend to,” said Hatch.

His decision could undermine GOP efforts to stall or block the confirmation. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLessons from the 1999 U.S. military intervention in Kosovo Five things to watch as AIPAC conference kicks off Romney helps GOP look for new path on climate change MORE (Ky.) said Friday that Holder would be the only Cabinet nominee to face a tough confirmation fight.

Hatch said that Republicans should try to strike a cooperative tone with President-elect Obama during the first days of his administration.

“I start with the premise that the president deserves the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think politics should be played with the attorney general,” he said.

“I like Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhat should Democrats do next, after Mueller's report? Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez's engagement win Obama's endorsement Pence lobbies anti-Trump donors to support reelection: report MORE and want to help him if I can.”

Other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, however, have vowed to grill Holder about his time as deputy attorney general under President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the Mueller report go public? The courts, not Barr, may ultimately decide Lessons from the 1999 U.S. military intervention in Kosovo End of Mueller probe a boost for Trump, a warning for Democrats MORE.

Republicans and other critics have questioned whether Holder should be disqualified because he gave Clinton a green light to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich. The pardon created an uproar eight years ago because Rich’s former wife was a friend of Clinton’s and had given tens of thousands of dollars to his presidential library and Democratic political committees.

“People don’t realize how many people are denied pardons and deserve them a hundred times more,” said Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMueller's investigation ends, but divisive political circus will continue Mueller delivers report to Justice, ending investigation Trump says 'people will not stand' for Mueller report MORE (R-Ala.), a member of Judiciary.

“I don’t see how anyone can lean favorable on that and lead the Justice Department,” said Sessions.

Holder, who had several contacts with Rich’s lawyers in the weeks leading up to the pardon, advised Clinton that he was neutral but leaned toward favoring a pardon.

“I don’t know why he felt he had to comment either way on the Rich pardon, which was so unjustified,” said Sessions. “We need to give him a chance to discuss it.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who is now the senior Republican on the Judiciary committee, has questioned whether Holder would maintain his independence under Obama.

Hatch said it will be important for Holder to explain his role in the Rich pardon but said he expected the confirmation hearing to settle his concerns.

“I like Eric; I think he’s a very fine person but I think he’s made some mistakes,” said Hatch.

“He’s going to have to explain himself,” Hatch added. “If he handles that well he’ll be fine. All the Democrats will vote for him.”

Democrats now hold a 10-9 advantage on the committee. That margin will likely grow to their favor once Senate leaders set new committee ratios.