President Obama will wait until after the November election to name a nominee for attorney general, setting the stage for an intense battle in the postelection Senate that could last until Christmas, a White House official said Tuesday.
The delay, which White House officials said came at the request of Senate Democrats, reflected concern about the effect Obama’s pick might have on the midterm election, when Republicans appear to be on the verge of taking control of the Senate.
Some Democrats worry that a controversial nominee, such as Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, could put vulnerable Democratic senators, such as Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, in a tougher spot. Senate leaders are concerned the nomination will become a campaign issue in an already tight election, according to a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The White House similarly postponed moving forward with its immigration plan, partly out of concern it might hurt Democratic candidates in November.
White House officials said Tuesday that Obama may still attempt to win Senate confirmation for his nominee during the lame-duck session after the election, but they acknowledged the delay could push the vote back until after a new Senate takes office in January.
The confirmation process for such an important post normally takes about two months or more. A formal nomination is now likely to come in early to mid-November.
Obama has been deliberating over who should replace Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who last month announced his plans to step down. White House officials said the president had narrowed the field but had not yet made his choice, despite the fact that Holder’s departure had long been anticipated.
In addition to Perez, the leading contenders for the job are said to be Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. and former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, although officials say others are in the mix. Perez, a liberal attorney long involved in Maryland politics, would be the most controversial pick, in part because of his record as Obama’s assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Some Republicans interpreted the delay in announcing the nominee as a sign that Obama intended to name Perez.
“This timing shows, once again, that the president and Democrat Senate leaders are willing to play politics with important policy decisions,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “First it was immigration, and now Senate Democrats have asked the president to delay his announcement for attorney general so they can avoid making clear to the voters of their states where they stand on what could be a controversial choice for attorney general.”
If a vote occurs in a Democratic-controlled Senate in a postelection session, Republicans would be powerless to block the nominee under current rules. But with polls indicating that Republicans have a solid chance of winning a majority in the next Senate, Obama’s ability to win confirmation of a controversial nominee would be greatly reduced if he waits until next year.
Not all Democrats may be pleased by the decision. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who will chair any hearings if they occur this year, said two weeks ago that the White House should move forward with a nomination as soon as possible. A Judiciary Committee aide noted Tuesday that a confirmation hearing was scheduled at the sole discretion of the committee chairman.
White House officials said the delay would allow their deliberative process to continue.
“I would anticipate that it will take a little bit of time for the work to be done to determine ... who the right person is for that important task,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday when asked about the attorney general nomination. “I also would anticipate that the Senate will act quickly and in bipartisan fashion to confirm that person.”
White House officials emphasized that the primary reason for the delay was the request from Senate leadership, not the president’s indecision.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Perez, who has been Labor secretary since July 2013, was asked whether he had talked to the White House about the attorney general job. “My conversations with the White House have been all about the long-term unemployed ... all about the progress we’re making as a nation in putting people back to work,” he said. “That’s my singular focus.”
Michael A. Memoli of the Washington bureau and John Fritze of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.