Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. faced Congress on Wednesday for the first time since President Barack Obama's re-election, with lawmakers questioning him on issues ranging from marijuana possession to potential drone strikes against coffee drinkers.
After more than two hours in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder had touched on a number of topics.
Holder described the limitations of prosecuting the largest banks, since the agency must consider the ripple effects on other businesses and the economy. "It has an inhibiting impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate," he said. “That is something that you all need to consider.”
He said the Department of Justice would announce its policy "relatively soon" on enforcing marijuana possession laws in the two states that have legalized it.
Holder defended how the DOJ handled the case of Aaron Swartz, saying prosecutors had offered "no more than five months" of jail to the 26-year-old political activist who killed himself earlier this year. He said potential action in the antitrust division would be focused this year on airline mergers and communications health care issues.
Most frequently, Holder discussed the hot issue of the Obama administration legal justification for the use of drones to kill terrorists. He hinted that Obama might be more forthcoming soon with Senators when it comes to opinions from the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel, including memos describing drone policy.
He described Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court arguments last week – as "a critical, critical part" the law, and said the DOJ brought voting rights cases last year that show the need for the section is still there. He reiterated that federal budget cuts triggered on March 1, called sequestration, could weaken national security because law enforcement agents would need to be put on furloughs.
The hearing was not without its hotspots. Holder sparred briefly with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) before finally saying that, no, the Constitution would not allow the government to use a drone to kill a suspected terrorist who was an American citizen drinking coffee in a coffee shop.
But Holder did not have to respond this time to calls from legislators for him to resign, something that had become routine when he visited Capitol Hill last year during the presidential election season. The discussion Wednesday was comparatively cordial.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) did accuse of Holder of a "level of partisanship" for statements Holder made in a television interview last week, when he said he did not have respect for the people in the House who had held him in contempt of Congress last year over.
"I don’t think you should have said it" and said Holder owed an apology to those he accused, Grassley said.
Holder said it was the process he didn't respect, since it seemed that there was a pre-determined effort to hold him in contempt no matter what. Then he added, "The people who pushed it, are people who, as I said before, I'll stand by that, the people who pushed that, I don't respect."