By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The stalled nomination of William Baer to be chief of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division may move forward in the coming weeks, a person with knowledge of the situation said on Friday.
Baer's nomination was approved by a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee in September by a 12 to 5 vote. Mike Lee of Utah, the top Republican on the antitrust subcommittee, joined majority Democrats in voting to approve the nomination.
But Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and other Republicans voted against Baer because of still-secret information contained in an FBI background report, and have ensured Baer's nomination is yet to come to the Senate floor.
Baer, a prominent antitrust and white collar criminal defense attorney with the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP who has worked in the past for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, was nominated in early February.
The substance of the FBI's report is still unknown but the source said it related to his personal behavior rather than his legal career. Even Baer's critics agreed that legally and professionally he was qualified to be the nation's chief antitrust enforcer, the congressional source said.
Baer's opponents now believe it is likely that Senate Democrats, who are the majority in the Senate and won additional seats in elections this week, will seek to bring the nomination up for a Senate vote before the end of the year.
In order for the nomination to be brought up on the floor, the source said, the Democrats may need to ask senators for unanimous consent.
At that point Grassley, the perceived leader of the opposition to Baer, would not try to block a floor vote on Baer but would likely vote against confirmation, the source said.
The division has been without a confirmed assistant attorney general for antitrust since Christine Varney stepped down in mid-2011. She was replaced by interim chiefs, the second of whom, Joseph Wayland, leaves on November 16. No new acting chief has been named.
If Republicans agree to allow the full Senate to vote on Baer, he will likely be confirmed, the source said.
Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Grassley on the Judiciary Committee, said that the official position on Baer's nomination remained the same. "Nothing has changed," said Levine.
The Justice Department declined comment. Baer's office did not immediately return a telephone call requesting comment.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting By Diane Bartz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)