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Senate invokes cloture, moving Trump pick for attorney general step closer to confirmation

February 12, 2019

The Senate on Tuesday took a major step toward advancing the attorney general nomination of William P. Barr, moving him one step closer to a floor vote later this week.

In a cloture vote, Mr. Barr’s nomination passed 55 to 44. Among the notable votes, Democrats Doug Jones of Alabama, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted in favor of Mr. Barr. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul was the lone GOP defection voting no.

A cloture vote is a procedural move before a final up-and-down confirmation vote and solid predictor of how that vote will shake out. Losing only one Republican vote and picking up three Democrat votes puts Mr. Barr on a likely path towards confirmation.

If confirmed, it will be Mr. Barr’s second go-around as attorney general. He previously held the position under President George H. W. Bush.

Still, Democrats overwhelmingly came out against Mr. Barr on Tuesday. They cited concerns over how he’ll handle special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether any of President Trump’s associates were involved.

A 2018 memorandum Mr. Barr submitted to top Justice Department officials critical of Mr. Mueller’s inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice has become the focus of Democrat opposition.

Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said the memo signals Mr. Barr’s willingness to protect the president from any fallout stemming from the Mueller probe.

“It is clear that the president’s major concern in choosing a new attorney general is to choose someone who will shield him from the special counsel investigation,” he said. “The unsolicited memo, to me, looked like job application to appeal to the president on those qualifications.”

Just before a Senate Judiciary Committee vote last week on Mr. Barr, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the memo should disqualify Mr. Barr.

Mr. Barr defended the memo during his confirmation hearing last month, saying it was originally meant to be an op-ed and he routinely weighs in on Justice Department issues.

Another issue Democrats seized upon was Mr. Barr’s refusal to offer an ironclad guarantee that he would release Mr. Mueller’s ultimate findings to Congress and the public. They accused Mr. Barr of plotting to suppress the special counsel’s findings to protect the president.

Republicans, however, say such concerns are partisan attacks, noting that Mr. Barr received unanimous support when confirmed by the Senate in the early 1990s.

“I hope our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will judge this nominee on his qualifications and not on the person who nominated him,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas.

Democrats, however, insisted that times have changed and the Trump administration needs a tighter leash than Bush presidency.They said Mr. Barr’s hedging on just how much of Mr. Mueller’s eventual findings would be released to Congress and the public are signs would suppress and limit the probe.

“There is a question of Mr. Barr’s fidelity to our constitution,” Mr. Warner said. “I find his actions deeply disturbing” and have serious doubts about this nominee’s independence and willing to stand up for the rule of law.”

Mr. Cornyn said it may be a different time than when Mr. Barr previously served as attorney general, but his ethics remain the same.

“His steadfast commitment to the rule of law has not shifted,” he said noting Mr. Barr’s nomination was endorsed by law enforcement groups and editorial boards.

None of the votes Tuesday were much of a surprise. Mr. Paul indicated in a December television interview he would likely vote against Mr. Barr.

A conservative advocacy group founded by his father, Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, urged its members to call lawmakers and voice their concerns. The group, Campaign for Liberty, said Mr. Barr is weak on gun rights and his soft on civil liberties, given his support of the Patriot Act.

“Of any Senator, Sen. Paul would be most likely to vote ‘no’, given that he has taken up his dad’s banner as part of the pro-liberty, anti-big government wing of the Republican party,” said Norm Singleton, president, Campaign for Liberty.

Mr. Singleton said he was disappointed some of the more conservative senators, including Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Sen. Mike Lee, Utah, support the nomination. He said he hopes both of them change their mind before the final vote.

“We think in this case, senators who have shown a strong commitments to gun rights and limits on executive power will be willing to take a stand on the floor,” he said.

Not all conservative advocacy groups opposed Mr. Barr, however.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director at the Judicial Crisis Network, said they view Mr. Barr’s record on gun issues as “strong,” and went as far as he could go in pledging to release the Mueller report.

“One thing we’ve seen as a pattern with him is that he is not going to prejudge a case,” she said. “He is not going to make promises he knows are inappropriate even if a Senator wishes he could promise one way or another. He is going to get into the position and do the analysis because confidential concerns and statutes cannot be disclosed. I think that was exactly the right line.”

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