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Justice Department Braces For GOP Rule In House

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas (left) and Rep. Peter King of New York, shown in a 2007 file photo, will lead committees that have oversight of the Justice Department.
Lauren Victoria Burke
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas (left) and Rep. Peter King of New York, shown in a 2007 file photo, will lead committees that have oversight of the Justice Department.

Later this week, the Obama administration will get its first taste of life under the new Republican-led House of Representatives, and few government agencies will make a more attractive target for GOP oversight than the Justice Department, which handles sensitive issues like civil rights and national security.

Don't think senior department officials haven't noticed the change in the political atmosphere. The last time a Democrat lived in the White House and the Republicans controlled Congress, the result was nonstop fireworks for the Clinton Justice Department, where now-Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. served as a top deputy.

Conservative lawmakers in the late 1990s issued a flurry of subpoenas to the department. They second-guessed decisions in federal corruption cases and highlighted mistakes by law enforcement agents at Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Robert Raben, who ran the legislative affairs unit at the Justice Department at the time, advises current department leaders to buckle their seat belts.

"In a sadly partisan and charged environment, very few opportunities to make the other party look bad go without waste," Raben said.

Republican Pledges Low-Key Approach

But Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who this week will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he is taking a low-key approach.

"We're going to give the administration every opportunity to cooperate," Smith said. "And when we have hearings, I think they'll supply the witnesses; they'll give us the answers that we want. It's only when the administration is not cooperating that you get into serious investigations or issuing subpoenas."

We're going to give the administration every opportunity to cooperate.

Smith told NPR that he will start to hold oversight hearings in February. Some of the items on the agenda this year might sound familiar. Remember that island prison in Cuba?

"You know, we have a first-class facility there," Smith said. "I've been to Guantanamo. We've spent millions of dollars on it. That is the exact right place to house terrorists, as long as the war on terrorism continues."

There's more on the GOP list, including civil rights disputes and claims by conservative lawyers in the department that the Obama administration failed to protect white voters in an intimidation case in Philadelphia.

"There are a number of instances, such as those involving the New Black Panthers, where the administration appears not to have enforced the law equally, and we may well get into that and look at that in some time in the future," Smith said.

A Charm Offensive

Other areas, such as the effectiveness of law enforcement on the Southwest border, lighter prison sentences in drug cases, and the Justice Department's legal challenge to Arizona's tough anti-immigrant law may draw Smith's fire, too.

But Attorney General Holder has been working to mend fences with Smith. It started last year, when Holder approached the Texas lawmaker at a football game and asked him to be nice. Holder described the charm offensive at a recent news conference.

"There have been a number of social occasions where we've had an opportunity to get together," Holder said. "At the White House, a Redskins game, I had him over for lunch I guess a couple of weeks or so ago."

But bonding with Smith is only the beginning -- and it may be the easiest part of the new GOP kindness campaign.

Three Other Committees Watching Justice

The Justice Department will also face oversight by three other important House committees, some led by fierce critics of the Obama administration's national security policies.

First, there's Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who is leading the Homeland Security Committee. King has been a fierce critic of terrorism prosecutions under Obama, including the case of accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He has already told reporters that he is planning to hold hearings on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans.

Last week, in fact, King blasted the White House for its plan to make a recess appointment for deputy attorney general nominee Jim Cole, who had languished in the Senate without an up-or-down vote for months.

"The Justice Department needs a strong deputy attorney general who understands that our country remains at war with Islamic terrorists, not a left-wing ideologue who places terrorists in the same categories as drug peddlers," King said.

Next, there's Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who will be running the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Rogers, a former FBI agent, has been critical of failures in the intelligence community — and of the White House and the Justice Department, which he says have tied agents' hands.

And finally, there's Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is leading the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That panel is traditionally one of the most active oversight platforms in the Congress.

How To Handle The Scrutiny

Raben, the former Justice lobbyist, said the challenge for the Obama Justice Department will be making sure that leaders don't get sidetracked by endless congressional hearings -- and that they know how to turn sometimes hostile questions to their advantage when they are on Capitol Hill.

"Explaining your decisions becomes significantly more important when you are under subpoena, under oath, in front of a camera, constantly questioned about decisions that you've made," Raben said.

Democrats advising the White House and the Justice Department said that it's important to offer the Republican-led Congress a baseline for how it will approach disputes down the road. They cited a January 2000 memo, signed by Raben, in which the Clinton Justice Department pledged to cooperate with Congress, but flatly said it would not provide sensitive information about ongoing law enforcement investigations and internal deliberations.

Holder tried to strike a positive note about the climate change in a recent conversation with reporters.

"I hope that we'll have a chance to focus on things ... that are not going to be politically attractive but will be of substance and things that have a day-to-day impact on the lives of the American people," he said.

But after two years, members of the Obama administration know that hope ebbs and flows. And they are hoping that time works to their advantage.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.