WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General nominee William Barr cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate Tuesday, signaling he has a clear path to confirmation later this week.
Barr passed a procedural vote 55-44 on Tuesday, less than a week after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send his nomination to the Senate floor with a 12-10 party-line vote. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., were the only Democrats to break with their party and vote for Barr. Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the lone Republican to vote no.
The Senate will still need to hold a final confirmation vote later this week, but the votes he garnered during the procedural vote Tuesday evening make it highly likely he will be confirmed.
Trump nominated Barr in December after forcing his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to resign following months of public feuds with the former senator. Trump routinely complained about Sessions' decision to recuse himself from investigations related to the campaign, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
Much of the debate over Barr's nomination focused on his ability to oversee Mueller's probe, which has been under the watch of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein since Sessions recused himself. Barr particularly faced questions during his nomination process about an unsolicited memo he sent to the Justice Department critical of the tack he believed Mueller's probe was taking.
In the 19-page memo, Barr said it appeared based on public reports that Mueller was looking into a possible obstruction case against Trump based on Trump's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. Barr argued Mueller should not be able to force Trump to sit down for an interview as part of the investigation, the theory of which Barr criticized as "fatally misconceived."
"As I understand it, his theory is premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law," Barr wrote. "Moreover, in my view, if credited by the department, it would have grave consequences far beyond the immediate confines of this case and would do lasting damage to the presidency and to the administration of law within the executive branch."
Barr spent a day in January fielding questions from senators about the memo and his views of Mueller's probe. Barr praised Mueller as a person and told Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that he could not see a circumstance in which Mueller would be fired, given agency regulations that hold he can only be let go for cause.
Barr told Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., in response to written questions submitted after his nomination hearing that he would resign if Trump ordered him to fire Mueller without good cause.
Even still, Barr would not commit to recusing himself from the Mueller probe, saying he would follow agency guidance on the topic. He also said he would follow the Justice Department's special counsel regulations "scrupulously and in good faith."
Barr's statements did not assuage the concerns of most Senate Democrats, who said they were skeptical Barr would be independent on the job given his past commentary on Mueller's probe.
"I find Mr. Barr's actions in the months leading up to his nomination to be deeply disturbing and as a result I have serious doubts about this nominee's independence and willingness to stand up for rule of law," Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, attempted to calm Democrats on Tuesday, calling Barr one of the best people Trump could have chosen for the job.
"To the American people, you can go to bed here soon knowing that the Department of Justice is in good hands," Graham said Tuesday.
If Barr is confirmed, it will be the second time he has led the Justice Department, having held the job under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. After leaving the agency, Barr worked in private practice and as general counsel to GTE Corporation and later Verizon. He most recently worked as of counsel at the Washington firm Kirkland & Ellis.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.