The last time William P. Barr faced the Senate for confirmation to be attorney general in 1991 he was so noncontroversial that he was approved on a voice vote, with no less than then-Sens. Joseph R. Biden and Edward M. Kennedy backing him.
It’s likely he will have tougher sailing this time around, after President Trump said he’ll nominate Mr. Barr to once again take the helm at the Justice Department.
His candor is particularly likely to win him more opponents.
In 1991, Mr. Barr flatly stated that he believed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a national right to abortion was wrong and should be overturned. That year, he was praised by Mr. Biden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who called his forthright answer a “landmark.”
“You have given the first candid answer that anyone has given on Roe v. Wade that I can remember in God knows how many years,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “I disagree with your view, but it is astounding to me and you are to be complimented.”
Now, Democrats are saying it’s a black mark against him — one of many that he’ll have to overcome if he’s to win confirmation.
“There’s no question William Barr is an experienced lawyer,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “However, there are concerns about his independence given his expansive views of executive power and partisan statements about pardons, the Mueller investigation and Hillary Clinton.”
Ms. Feinstein joined the Senate just after Mr. Barr’s confirmation and didn’t get a chance to vote on him in 1991.
But three Republicans, Sens. Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby and Chuck Grassley, all did, as did one current Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Barr should be a shoo-in.
“His compelling credentials and experience, serving at the highest levels in both government — including as a former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush — and in the private sector, make him more than well-qualified to lead the Department of Justice again,” the Iowa Republican said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who next year will likely become the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Barr will be “a strong and steady hand” at the top of the department.
“Well done, Mr. President,” he said.
Not all Republicans were as enthusiastic.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said he has been “disturbed” by Mr. Barr’s defense of presidential powers and national security legislation such as the Patriot Act.
“I haven’t made a decision yet on him, but I can tell you the first things that I’ve learned about him being for more surveillance of Americans is very, very troubling,” Mr. Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Barr won’t see Senate action until next year in the new Congress — which will work out to the GOP’s advantage. It is expected to have 53 seats, up from 51 now, giving leaders more of a margin to handle individual objectors such as Mr. Paul.
Democrats have signaled they will approach Mr. Barr with far more skepticism this time than they did in 1991.
That’s particularly true given they view most of Mr. Trump’s nominations — and anything having to do with the Justice Department in particular — through the lens of the ongoing special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump campaign figures’ behavior.
“Mr. Barr must demonstrate that he would be an independent attorney general committed to the Constitution and the rule of law, not the president who nominated him,” said Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat and a Judiciary Committee member.
Yet Mr. Barr’s description in 1991 of how he views the role of attorney general could quell some fears.
He said at the time that the Justice Department’s chief is the legal counselor to the president and Cabinet, but also has an independent duty to the law itself.
“That is the area where the attorney general’s allegiance has to be to the law above all,” he told senators. “And that is not to say that the first role doesn’t require allegiance to the law, but it is in the second role where the tension is sometimes said to exist between politics and doing justice.”
“That is the area where the attorney general must keep the administration of justice away from and above politics,” he said.
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