The rift between the White House and Senate Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch over political appointments has spilled over into the picking of a new U.S. attorney for Utah.
The White House and Utah Democrats support the appointment of Salt Lake lawyer James Holbrook, husband of state Democratic Party chairwoman Meg Holbrook.Hatch favors naming Paul Warner, an unabashed Republican and career prosecutor.
"Paul Warner is not acceptable to us," said Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. "Frankly, we have made it our position that we feel the White House owes us this position."
Clinton will choose the nominee, who will then appear before Hatch's committee before having his name placed before the Senate for confirmation.
The U.S. attorney for Utah answers to the attorney general and is the chief federal prosecutor in the state. The Utah office contains some 70 lawyers and oversees the actions of numerous federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Both men recently flew to Washington, D.C., to interview with the Justice Department and are the acknowledged finalists for the job vacated by Scott M. Matheson Jr., a President Clinton appointee who stepped down in November.
As the Senate committee's chairman, Hatch has challenged Clinton on a number of his judicial appointments, most recently blocking the appointment of Philadelphia judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, who was accused of being soft on crime.
Clinton and Hatch have clashed over numerous other judicial appointments, with Hatch accusing the president of appointing activists to the bench. Clinton has criticized Hatch and the GOP-controlled Senate for interfering with his presidential prerogative on political appointments.
Hatch was not available for comment Tuesday. However, Warner acknowledged he was encouraged by Hatch to seek the post and that "it's fair to say" the senator is backing his appointment.
"If he weren't, my name wouldn't be out there otherwise," he said.
Holbrook, a Democrat who served as first assistant under former U.S. attorney Ron Rencher in 1978-80 during the Carter administration, said he has been interviewed by the White House and attorneys in the Justice Department.
His was one of three names submitted by the Democratic Party - former district Judge Scott Daniels and Ogden lawyer Greg Sanders were the others - and Holbrook is the apparent front-runner.
He has not heard from Hatch. "And I wouldn't expect to," Holbrook said.
The party is pleased with the choice, but both Meg Holbrook and Taylor were quick to insist she played no role in her husband's emergence.
Taylor said that Hatch's prominence on the Judiciary Committee has forced the state Democrats to compromise on some judicial appointments.
"We'll get someone who is maybe a Democrat in their heart of hearts but won't wear it on their sleeve," he said. "That's not what we want here. We want a Democrat and Paul Warner is not a Democrat in any way, shape or form."