Before Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. testified to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, the ranking Democrat had a warning for his colleagues on the panel: Play nice.
Mr. Holder has a testier relationship with Congress than any other Cabinet secretary, as he has fended off inquiries over a botched gun-running operation, his lawsuits against states' immigration policies, and the Obama administration's justification for killing U.S. citizens in the fight against terrorist groups.
He also likely is sitting on more major unanswered information requests than any other secretary as he tries to negotiate separation-of-powers and national security issues and — according to Republicans — do political damage-control as well.
Longtime committee members said his relationship compares poorly to that of past attorneys general, who themselves were no strangers to bloody fights with Congress.
"I think it's worse, and it's continuing to deteriorate both in terms of the nonresponsiveness to the requests from our committee and other committees as well, but also his unwillingness to take responsibility when things go wrong," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the committee, who is serving his 10th term.
As the country's top lawyer, Mr. Holder oversees everything from the FBI to federal civil rights laws to voting practices in the states, and he has made no apologies about his progressive politics. He also says part of his job is political — though he says his decisions don't stem from ideology.
"They reflect my view of the facts, the law and what my responsibility is as attorney general of the United States," he said.
Rough relationships between the administration and Congress are usual, and President George W. Bush's officials often faced tough questions from Democrats when they controlled Congress.
But lawmakers still knew Thursday's hearing would be testy, with many heated issues at hand. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the panel's top Democrat, warned his colleagues ahead of time to act "in a manner that is worthy of the attorney general's present appearance here."
Cabinet secretaries usually leave each appearance with a to-do list, including questions they promise to answer. Committee aides said Mr. Holder finally replied over the past week to many of the outstanding questions from his last appearance, but there are some key places where they said he is holding out:
• Several lawmakers are seeking information on the department's decision not to prosecute some of the co-conspirators in the case against the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity shut down over convictions for financing Islamist terrorism. Mr. Holder promised to "make a good-faith effort" to look at the request — lodged more than a year ago — but he said the information might be from a grand jury or otherwise out of bounds.
• Rep. Elton Gallegly, California Republican, is seeking information on how many prosecutions the Justice Department has made in immigration worksite-enforcement cases. Mr. Holder said he thought he had replied and apologized if that information hadn't been sent over yet.
• The committee also is seeking information on why the Justice Department still hasn't closed its investigation into CIA interrogators; whether the department pressured a litigant to drop a Supreme Court appeal in order to prevent an adverse ruling on housing discrimination; and on applicants for the department's Civil Rights Division.
In some cases, the department says it doesn't have to comply, while in other cases it acknowledges the requests but, according to committee members and aides, doesn't answer substantively.
Then there's Fast and Furious, the gun-running operation that attracts the most attention and spawns the most heated exchanges.
Republicans argue Mr. Holder and his top lieutenants either knew or should have known about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' decision to allow straw purchases of guns in Arizona, knowing the weapons were being taken across the border to arm Mexican cartels.
The operation finally was halted after at least two of the guns turned up at the site of a shootout that left U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry dead in December 2010.
Republicans say Mr. Holder is stonewalling their investigation, and last month, House Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team wrote a letter warning Mr. Holder to cooperate in the Fast and Furious investigation or the House would have to take further steps, possibly including holding him in contempt of Congress.
On Thursday Mr. Holder said he is willing to meet personally with Republican leaders "and try to come to an accommodation so that we can get you the information that you need consistent with what I think is our need to protect ongoing investigations."
The head-butting didn't come only from the GOP.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, asked whether Mr. Holder would hold a briefing and release to committee members the secret memo justifying the administration's program to target and kill American citizens it thinks are opposing the U.S. in the war on terrorism.
"We'll certainly consider the possibility of a briefing," Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Nadler pushed back: "The possibility? You won't commit to giving a briefing to this committee?"
Mr. Holder said he "probably" would be able to do that — and under further questioning said he'd be able to get an answer within a month.
Afterward, Mr. Nadler told The Washington Times it was a fair answer from the attorney general.
He also said relations between the committee and Mr. Holder are not as bad as with other officials at other times in his 22 years in Congress — and he pointed to the battle with Bush administration Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, to whom the committee ended up issuing subpoenas for documents related to the firing of U.S. attorneys.
"We spent two years, I think, trying to get stuff. I don't think it's nearly as bad as that," he said. "They fought the subpoenas and then they ignored them. Nothing compares to that."
Republicans, though, said Mr. Holder isn't just withholding information, he's also refusing to take responsibility. Members of the GOP have called for him to further discipline prosecutors who botched the case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and to fire political appointees who may have been responsible for the Fast and Furious operation.
Mr. Goodlatte compared Mr. Holder's performance unfavorably with that of Janet Reno, attorney general under President Clinton, who came to Congress after the disastrous federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, left dozens dead.
"She got a lot of criticism, but she came to the committee, and she came to the Congress, and she said, 'I'm the attorney general, and I take responsibility for my employees,' " Mr. Goodlatte said.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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