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Nomination process questioned after Kerik withdraws

Lawmakers discuss possible Homeland Security replacements

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What went wrong with the Bernard Kerik nomination?

Homeland Security nominee drops out.

Bernard Kerik explains his decision.
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Bernard Kerik

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers debated White House culpability Sunday in the doomed nomination of Bernard Kerik as Homeland Security secretary, asking why the administration failed to find critical information in its vetting process before officially selecting him.

Top Democrats and Republicans also mulled potential replacements to fill the critical post being vacated by outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge.

Kerik withdrew his name from consideration Friday night, saying he discovered someone he had employed as a nanny and housekeeper had questionable immigration status. He insisted the White House had not erred in its vetting process, but that he found the problem during a "deeper, closer" look at his background in preparation for confirmation.

Senior administration officials told CNN they were upset over the incident, insisting an independent investigation had been conducted, as is standard, but that the White House has to rely on nominees to come forward with issues that could derail their own nominations.

But that was not the only factor from Kerik's past that called his fitness for the office into question.

In the days after the selection was announced, news broke on other fronts that could have made for a grueling Senate confirmation hearing, including business dealings that were called into question and accusations that he misused resources while head of the New York Police Department.

Senators said Sunday that the issue of the nanny alone may have been enough to derail his nomination. They pointed to previous instances during the Clinton and Bush administrations in which nominees had to withdraw because of similar issues. (Full story)

Kerik "did the graceful thing, and he stepped down," Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said on CNN's "Late Edition." "And so I am not going to add to the speculation as to whether there may have been other things. The nanny thing was enough all by itself."

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and like Biden a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN "nominees are always the responsibility of the president and his team."

But he stopped short of criticizing the administration for missing factors that could have derailed the nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham went further.

"I don't know why he wasn't better vetted," the South Carolina Republican said on "Fox News Sunday." "These problems have surfaced. I don't know why they weren't known before."

And Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, said, "There is a real vetting problem."

He added, "You can't have the person in charge of immigration having problems with immigration or his employees."

Several lawmakers accused the Bush administration of rushing to fill a slew of Cabinet posts, echoing criticism of Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who told CNN on Saturday that the White House "got caught up in post-election euphoria."

But the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee -- which will oversee the confirmation process -- rejected criticism of the Bush administration.

"The White House vetting process is a thorough one, and I am positive that Mr. Kerik was asked about domestic employees, financial matters, legal disputes," Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said on ABC's "This Week." "He clearly was not as forthcoming as he should have been."

Now, several names are being discussed as possible nominees, including the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, Asa Hutchinson; Environmental Protection Agency Commissioner Mike Leavitt; and Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman's name drew bipartisan support from lawmakers Sunday.

Graham said Lieberman "would be a terrific pick," while Collins told ABC that she'd recommend Hutchinson or Lieberman -- a Connecticut Democrat who was author of the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security.

Collins' statement prompted a "hear, hear" from Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

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