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The possible departure of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is unlikely to improve the icy relationship between the Republican-led House and the Justice Department, GOP lawmakers and aides say.
Instead, the House that held the attorney general in contempt of Congress for the first time in history and is suing him in federal court wants to see broader changes at the Justice Department during President Obama’s second term. Some Republicans want to see resignations in other top leadership posts at Justice, for example, including Senate-confirmed positions that oversee criminal and civil rights investigations.
“If they want to have a clean start, the assistant attorney generals in charge of the various divisions ought to be replaced. There ought to be a clean sweep,” said Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a former Judiciary Committee chairman who remains the panel’s most senior Republican. “Just changing the person at the top is not going to solve the problem, at least in terms of perception on the part of the House.”
Many House Republicans say very little will change unless the department turns over documents related to a failed law enforcement initiative in Mexico known as “Operation Fast and Furious.” Those documents have been at the center of the chamber’s problems with Holder, including its contempt citation and subsequent, related lawsuit.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who leads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he will continue his aggressive oversight of the department even if Holder steps down. Issa’s committee began the contempt proceedings against Holder in June, and it sued him in federal court in September, seeking to compel disclosure of the documents it has long sought. Holder declined to provide them after invoking executive privilege.
“Attorney General Holder’s departure would not end the committee’s investigation of Operation Fast and Furious and the Justice Department’s response,” Becca Glover Watkins, a spokeswoman for the panel’s GOP majority, said in an email. “Any nominee should expect to face questions about the department’s inadequate response.”
Unless the department turns over the documents, it is shielding under executive privilege, “it will not get any better,” Sensenbrenner added. “The issue of the withheld documents has got to be resolved.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about the department’s relationship with the House, but said that Holder is still evaluating whether to stay or step down. That process, she said, includes discussions with the president and family members, as well as a consideration of “what else he might want to accomplish if he were to stay.”
Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, has emphasized civil rights enforcement and waged legal challenges to numerous voting law changes proposed by Republican-led state legislatures, arguing that they could disenfranchise eligible voters.
That has angered many Republicans, who accuse Holder of playing politics, but Holder has made no apologies for the department’s civil rights emphasis. In a speech in Mississippi in September, he said the “driving force that animates my efforts” is “to strive for equal justice under law, and to be both rigorous and fair in our enforcement of the essential civil rights protections that so many have fought, and even died, to secure.”
Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington office of the NAACP, said in an interview that Republican Justice Departments tend to focus more heavily on other law enforcement priorities, such as the prosecution of corporate, white-collar crimes. Part of the problem House Republicans may have with Holder is a basic philosophical difference over what the department’s priorities should be, he said.
Even so, Shelton said, “we have seen an indication of an extreme approach [on the part of the House] when it comes to Eric Holder’s Justice Department.”
If Holder does stay, he is assured of receiving more inquiries not only from Issa’s committee but from the Judiciary Committee, which Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is widely expected to chair in the 113th Congress, replacing Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has reached his six-year term limit. Goodlatte is among 114 cosponsors of a no-confidence resolution (H Res 490) against Holder and has been a regular critic of the attorney general, particularly over Fast and Furious.
Outside interest groups, including the powerful National Rifle Association, also have demanded Holder’s resignation. The NRA scored the House’s June 28 contempt of Congress vote against Holder, and several conservative Democrats joined with Republicans in approving the unprecedented sanction.
If Holder resigns, meanwhile, Obama must make numerous calculations before choosing a replacement. Names that have surfaced include Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., both members of the Judiciary Committee, as well as Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. But appointing any of them could weaken the Democrats’ Senate majority.
Other possible replacements include Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a former Justice Department official and friend of Obama who dined with the president at the White House recently, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Democratic former governor and attorney general of Arizona. Both would allow Obama to avoid altering the Senate majority. Some House Republicans already have raised concerns, although they do not have a role in confirming cabinet officials.