James Cole, still stuck in limbo

James Cole spent 13 years as Justice Department official, and is an accomplished attorney. When President Obama nominated him to be the deputy attorney general — the second highest-ranking position in the department, effectively Justice’s chief operating officer — few questioned Cole’s qualifications or abilities.

But conservative Republicans didn’t like him. In particular, Cole had criticized Bush/Cheney’s dubious national security tactics after 9/11, and about a decade ago, he referred to the 9/11 attacks themselves as “criminal acts of terrorism.” This, the GOP concluded, disqualified him for the post.

In December, seven months after Cole was nominated, the president got tired of waiting for Senate Republicans to stop playing petty games, and gave him a recess appointment. But the White House still wants Cole to be confirmed, so his tenure can last more than a year.

The GOP sees things differently.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted Monday to block President Obama’s choice for the No. 2 position in the Justice Department, leaving the nominee in an official limbo that has already lasted months.

James M. Cole, a Justice Department veteran turned white-collar defense lawyer, was nominated for the post of deputy attorney general last May. But Republicans objected, citing, among other concerns, Cole’s previous support for trying international terrorism suspects in U.S. criminal courts.

Would now be a good time to mention that presidents from both parties have routinely tried international terrorism suspects in U.S. criminal courts?

The vote in the Senate yesterday was 50 to 40 in support of confirmation. That, of course, means that the effort failed, since Republicans filibustered Cole and demanded a 60-vote supermajority.

If Cole were simply offered an up-or-down vote, he’d be confirmed easily. Indeed, Cole is already doing the job well, and no one is questioning his qualifications or performance, leaving his critics with nothing to stand on. And yet, the Senate GOP is blocking an up-or-down vote — they don’t just want to vote against Cole, they want to prevent the chamber from voting at all.

Given the way the Justice Department operates, the Senate is usually less ridiculous. In recent generations, no Senate has blocked a deputy attorney general for this long. Indeed, given the DOJ’s role in counter-terrorism, the delays are considered borderline dangerous.

“It’s one week after the successful operation that killed Osama bin Laden … and there are people trying to block President Obama from having his full national security team in place,” Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said on the Senate floor. “It’s Alice in Wonderland.”

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Update: Reader P.D. reminds me that Cole also had a hand in bringing down Newt Gingrich. It wouldn’t be too shocking if some in the Senate GOP held a grudge about this.