Senate Democrats are rallying to Attorney General Eric Holder’s defense.
They argue Republicans are wrong to suggest he is overly partisan or that he is more uncooperative with Congress, compared to past attorneys general.
“I guess they don’t like anybody who disagrees with them,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He’s a strong and smart advocate for a different point of view.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a senior member of the panel, also stood up for Holder.
“I simply do not accept that. I’ve been here long enough to know,” she said. “He is less partisan than some, that’s for sure.”
Holder is at the center of a new political firestorm following testy exchanges with House Republicans this week at a panel hearing.
After getting into it with Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder made headlines by saying he had been treated differently compared to past attorneys general.
He accused Republicans of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks against him and the rest of the Obama administration.
It’s just the latest battle between the combative Holder and the House GOP, which voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress in Obama’s first term over the "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking program.
The contempt Holder and the GOP hold for one another was on full display all week.
“He’s certainly the worst. He’s the most political attorney general,” Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate Republican Whip, said Thursday.
“He’s been completely noncooperative with Congress, making bogus claims to executive privilege on the Fast and Furious investigation and nonresponsive to the House members,” Cornyn said.
“He is contemptuous of Congress and any legitimate congressional oversight,” he added.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who uncovered the gun-walking operation that resulted in the death of border patrol agent Brian Terry, said Holder has refused to answer letters and questions from members of the Judiciary Committee.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the panel, said Holder is “pleasant” in person but called his attitude toward Congress “obnoxious.”
“He’s doing everything he can to ignore Congress,” he said.
Fights between attorneys general and lawmakers in the opposing party are nothing new, and Democrats say Holder is no more politically motivated than former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom they say presided over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys because of a lack of loyalty to the Republican Party.
“Under Gonzales they made partisanship a hiring consideration,” said Whitehouse.
Holder’s actions don’t “make him a partisan, not compared to what Gonzales did,” he added.
While Republicans are furious with Holder, he’s becoming popular on the left, which relishes his willingness to exchange barbs with the GOP.
The Huffington Post, a left-leaning media outlet, elicited a flood of positive comments Tuesday, when it reported on Holder’s mocking reply to Gohmert.
“Good luck with your asparagus,” Holder told Gohmert, taking a dig the GOP’s lawmaker’s verbal gaffe in May when he accused the attorney general of “casting aspersions on my asparagus,” when he meant to say “character” instead of “asparagus.”
Grassley and other Republicans have also slammed Holder for selectively enforcing laws, such as the Defense of Marriage Act.
Holder informed Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2011 that the Justice Department would not defend the law’s application to same-sex couples because the administration deemed it violated the Fifth Amendment.
Republicans are also upset over the Justice Department’s decision not to interfere with marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington state.
Holder further incensed Republicans, when he declared in front of the House Judiciary Committee that he has a “vast amount” of discretion over the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal law.
This has angered Grassley, who is poised to become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel if Republicans regain control of the upper chamber.
“He’s been very blatant in encouraging people to ignore the law,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), another senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Holder has failed to properly investigate charges that the IRS improperly targeted conservative political groups.
He said the DOJ should have acted when Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s exempt organizations office, pleaded for protection under the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating herself.
“It’s just a very cavalier attitude about some things that is his biggest problem,” Graham said.
Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said Holder must prioritize his time and attention.
“The Attorney General is focused on priorities like reforming drug sentencing policies and extending federal benefits to same-sex married couples to the fullest extent possible. This work is too important to be sidetracked by the political back-and-forth in Congress,” he said.
The Justice Department’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
David Burnham, a journalist who covered the Justice Department for years at The New York Times and authored Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes, and other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice, said Republican attorneys general, notably Edwin Meese, who served under President Ronald Reagan, often ignored demands from congressional Democrats.
“That is totally the traditional response of the Justice Department: Do not answer questions. The Democrats were crazed by Meese,” he said.
Even so, he acknowledged Holder’s accusation that Republicans had launched “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks was unusually strong language.
“Sounds like the attorney general lost his temper. I can’t think an exact parallel of that but I’m sure there is,” he said.