Despite being the first attorney general ever to be held in contempt of Congress, Eric H. Holder Jr. intends to stay in his post for the foreseeable future, the Justice Department confirmed on Wednesday.
Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, had been expected to step down relatively early into President Barack Obama’s second term. But amid a string of high-profile Cabinet departures in recent days — including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and, on Wednesday, Labor Secretary Hilda D. Solis — Holder will remain as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
The news was first reported by The Associated Press.
Holder’s continued service ensures that his long-running clash with House Republicans over a failed gun-tracing operation known as “Fast and Furious” is likely to continue into the president’s second term. He is also likely to play a visible role in the administration’s emerging efforts to enact tougher gun and ammunition restrictions.
Holder and the GOP-led House have long had a difficult relationship. On June 28, the House voted to find Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over documents sought under a House subpoena relating to the Fast and Furious operation, in which the Justice Department allowed thousands of high-powered rifles to enter Mexico illegally. The initiative was a failed effort to trace the guns to Mexican drug cartels, and two were later found at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, in Arizona.
Holder refused to turn over documents related to the operation after invoking executive privilege, contending that internal department deliberations are protected from congressional oversight and need not be divulged. The House is now suing Holder in federal court to obtain those documents, with hearings under way at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
House Republicans have made clear that they intend to keep up their political pressure on the Justice Department over Fast and Furious, and more than 100 Republicans, including former vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, co-sponsored a resolution of no confidence in Holder during the last Congress.
“There ought to be a clean sweep” at the department, former Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told CQ Roll Call in November, when it was widely expected that Holder would step down early this year. “Just changing the person at the top is not going to solve this problem, at least in terms of perception on the part of the House.”
The emerging debate over gun control could further inflame relations between Holder and House Republicans, who so far have shown little inclination to support new restrictions on guns and ammunition in the wake of the fatal shooting of 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at a Connecticut elementary school on Dec. 14. The powerful National Rifle Association also has called on Holder to resign over the Fast and Furious initiative.
Despite that, Holder is likely to participate in a meeting with the NRA on Thursday as part of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s task force on gun violence.
One widely expected recommendation by the task force is to strengthen the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has not had a permanent director in six years and reports to Holder. The attorney general probably would play an important role in any such process.
But in an interview with CQ Roll Call in December, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., warned that an effort to bolster the ATF risks getting intertwined with House Republicans’ frustrations over Fast and Furious.
“As long as the president asserts executive privilege to cloud the whole question of failures at the ATF, I don’t think he stands on high ground to have a Senate-confirmed permanent director,” Issa said.
Holder, 61, is already the longest-serving attorney general since John D. Ashcroft, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.