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Mukasey Tries a New Approach to Hill

Whitehouse said he penned a letter to Mukasey wishing him well after his confirmation. Just before the holidays, he got a call from Mukasey advising him that he would be releasing new regulations limiting the number of contacts between Justice and the White House, which Whitehouse had expressed concern about.

“That was very nice. That was a personal touch,” Whitehouse commented.

Mukasey’s overtures are being buttressed by former Hill aides who joined Justice over the summer: Brian Benczkowski, a former senior counsel to then-House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and ex-aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), came on board in July as the deputy assistant attorney general at the Office of Legislative Affairs. Carr, the former chief spokesman for Hatch, is the new No. 2 in the Justice press shop.

Mukasey also has taken several steps welcomed by former critics to rebuild the reputation of a department battered by a year of scandal following the sloppy firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Sensational hearings and public pressure resulted in the resignation of top Justice aides, including Attorney General and Bush confidant Alberto Gonzales.

Five days after assuming office, Mukasey reopened an investigation into the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Most recently, he launched a criminal probe into the CIA’s destruction of tapes depicting the interrogation of high-profile terrorist detainees, earning kudos from Democrats and the press.

Although he initially praised him, Leahy ultimately opposed Mukasey because the nominee refused to classify waterboarding as torture.

Nonetheless, Leahy and Mukasey have talked several times since his confirmation and the attorney general reached out to invite Leahy and his chief counsel, Bruce Cohen, to the lighting of the National Menorah during the holidays, which Mukasey presided over.

“The new attorney general’s view is whether we’re going to agree or disagree on the merits, I want to have a good personal relationship with Pat Leahy,” one Justice Department aide said.

Mukasey also reached out to another potentially powerful enemy: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), calling Durbin to inform him that Mark Filip, a district judge from Chicago, would be the administration’s pick as the new deputy attorney general.

Despite initial praise, Filip ran into the same problem as Mukasey — he refused to declare waterboarding illegal during his confirmation hearings — drawing the ire of Democrats, including Durbin.

Mukasey and Justice officials also consulted with Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman (R) and Amy Klobuchar (D) before the White House nominated career prosecutor Frank Magill to take over for Rachel Paulose, the controversial former head of the Minnesota U.S. attorney’s office.

But Justice officials are not naive about the challenges they face with only a year left in the Bush presidency and a Democratic majority unafraid to wield its oversight power, especially during a presidential election year.

Several legislative battles are brewing, not the least of which are possible Senate and House floor fights over contempt citations in the U.S. attorney matter against ex-Bush political guru Karl Rove, White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

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