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Obama's likely pick to head FBI widely praised

Friday - 5/31/2013, 12:40pm  ET

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans said Thursday they see no major obstacles to Senate confirmation of James Comey, the former deputy attorney general in the Bush administration who is expected to be nominated by President Barack Obama as the next FBI director.

Comey, who would replace Robert Mueller as head of the national security organization, is certain to face tough questions about his work as a counsel for a major hedge fund and his ties to Wall Street as well as how he would handle current, high-profile FBI investigations.

But Republicans and Democrats said the former prosecutor's strong credentials and sterling reputation suggest his path to confirmation should be relatively smooth.

"I think he'll be confirmed" by the Senate, said former Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican who served in the Senate from 1994-2000.

Comey "is an extraordinary individual and I don't know why you wouldn't want a person like this," Ashcroft said of his onetime deputy. As a leader, Comey "welcomes diverse discussions. When he makes a decision and an institution decides a course of action, he is not to be dissuaded by irrelevant or political considerations."

Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who served with Comey at the Justice Department and whose opinion carries considerable weight with Republicans, said Comey is "very smart. He's a very straight shooter. He's the FBI's kind of person."

Republican and Democratic congressional aides said they didn't see any looming problems with Obama's likely choice a day after three people with knowledge of the selection said Obama planned to nominate Comey. The aides Thursday spoke on condition of anonymity because the initial internal reactions were private.

Several Democratic senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, had no immediate comment as they awaited official word from the White House.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday declined to comment on Comey's impending nomination, nor would he discuss the timing of any announcement.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said he appreciated that Comey has "a lot of experience on national security issues, which is one of the most important focuses for the FBI in the aftermath of 9/11, and has shown integrity in dealing with these matters."

The Iowa senator said Comey would have to answer questions about his work as counsel for Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates from 2010 until earlier this year.

"The administration's efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and his agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues in this lucrative industry," Grassley said.

Grassley's mix of praise and questions were in sharp contrast to the reaction to another Republican tapped by Obama for a national security job.

When former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel's name emerged late last year as a possible candidate for defense secretary, outside groups and opposition on Capitol Hill immediately revved up in a concerted effort to scuttle the nomination.

Hagel's votes and statements on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons drew immediate scrutiny and circulated on Capitol Hill. Some Senate Republicans said flatly they would oppose the selection even before Obama officially announced his choice on Jan. 7.

Hagel, a two-term Nebraska senator, had angered some of his former colleagues when he became an outspoken critic of the Iraq war and President George W. Bush's handling of the conflict.

After a bruising confirmation fight, the Senate approved Hagel's nomination in February.

Comey would be more than a Cabinet pick in a president's second term. If confirmed, the former U.S. attorney would serve a 10-year tenure overseeing an organization responsible for both intelligence and law enforcement with more than 36,000 employees.

Matthew Orwig, a former U.S. attorney, called Comey "an inspired choice. He will run the FBI with the independence required. He's his own man."

"He's not intimidated by anybody; that's something you need in an FBI director," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman at the time Comey was deputy attorney general.

Comey would be coming into the FBI at a critical time, with the agency conducting a politically sensitive investigation of the Internal Revenue Service and a probe of the Boston Marathon bombings that have raised some doubts about the FBI's ability to prevent terrorist attacks.

In addition, it is the FBI that is carrying out the Justice Department's aggressive use of subpoenas and in at least one instance, a search warrant, to gather the phone records and emails of some journalists. The aggressive stance has triggered an outcry from the news media and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

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