WASHINGTON-News networks didn't know what to cover Thursday at the Capitol: cabinet nominees' Senate hearings, the arrival of Roland Burris to take his seat in the Senate, the farewell speeches of Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, or the continued congressional squabbling over an economic stimulus package and more bailout funds that will eat up more dollars than it takes to run all federal agencies in a year.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m., attorney general nominee Eric Holder faced a panel of Senate Judiciary Committee members who wanted to hear his thoughts on the Patriot Act, torture, and how the Justice Department can be run independently of politics.
The ranking Republican, Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, persistently questioned Holder about his conduct in President Clinton's final-hour pardon of Marc Rich, a financial fraud fugitive who was also accused of arms deals. Holder had told Clinton that he was leaning in favor of pardoning Rich.
"The guy had a reprehensible record," said Specter. "Given your competency, how do you explain it?"
Holder tried to diffuse hostility about the Rich pardon by saying his actions were mistakes and that what he learned then about being an independent voice to the president will make him a better attorney general.
"I've accepted the responsibility for making those mistakes," Holder said. "I should have not spoken to the White House and expressed an opinion without the facts. That remains the most intense, searing experience I've had as a lawyer."
He went on to dispute reports that he had recommended Rich to hire White House counsel Jack Quinn to represent him.
Questioned on issues relevant to the Bush administration, Holder called the Patriot Act a "very useful tool," but said the Justice Department must adhere to the U.S. Constitution and follow congressional direction. Speaking definitively on a topic no Bush attorney general appointee had previously, he called waterboarding torture.
"No one is above the law," he added.
Holder was appointed a district court judge by President Reagan and later served as deputy attorney general under President Clinton. He has been an adviser to Barack Obama throughout his campaign, serving prominently in Biden's selection as the vice presidential candidate.
Senate committees Thursday also held hearings for Sen. Ken Salazar, slated for Interior secretary; Susan Rice, ambassador to the United Nations; and Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security secretary. The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved Hillary Clinton's nomination as secretary of state, with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) being the only opposing vote.
Biden and Clinton delivered their farewell speeches on the Senate floor while hearings continued nearby. Biden, in his last chance to speak in his freewheeling style before assuming the vice presidency, told story after story about his 36 years in the Senate. He began sentences, "I shouldn't say this probably . . ." and went on to revisit conversations with well-known senators.
"I came here to fight [for] civil rights," he said. "And I leave here today to serve the first African-American president. The arc of the universe is long but it does indeed bend toward justice."
The current vice president, Dick Cheney, arrived for what is expected to be his last appearance in the Senate chamber to administer the oath of office to Roland Burris, who will take Obama's seat representing Illinois. Burris was barred from the chamber last week because he had the nomination of the unsavory Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich but not the signature of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. With the signature in tow this time, he entered the chamber where a handful of Democrats welcomed him with applause.
A resolution to block Obama's request for $350 billion in TARP funds failed in a 42-52 vote in the Senate Thursday evening, clearing the way for the House to release the funds. Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he believed historians would remember the release of the TARP funds as the time when the economy began to turn around. Meanwhile the House approved an amendment by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) putting more restrictions on the TARP funds and providing housing assistance.
Separately, House Democrats revealed their proposal for the economic stimulus package, which carries an $825 billion price tag.