RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As the Republicans take control of the House, they will also be taking control of important committees that oversee and can investigate government departments and agencies. The Republicans are likely to focus much of their attention on the Justice Department, which handles sensitive issues like civil rights and national security.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on how the Justice Department is getting ready.
CARRIE JOHNSON: The last time a Democrat lived in the White House and the Republicans controlled Congress, the result was non-stop fireworks for the Clinton Justice Department.
Conservative lawmakers issued a flurry of subpoenas. They second guessed decisions in corruption cases, and highlighted mistakes by law enforcement agents at Waco and Ruby Ridge.
Robert Raben worked at the Justice Department back then, and now he's advising department leaders to buckle their seatbelts.
Mr. ROBERT RABEN (Former Justice Department Lobbyist): In a sadly partisan and charged environment, very few opportunities to make the other party look bad go without waste.
Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): It's only when the administration is not cooperating that you get into serious investigations or issuing subpoenas.
JOHNSON: That's Texas Republican Lamar Smith taking a low key approach.
Rep. SMITH: We're going to give the administration every opportunity to cooperate. And when we have hearings, I think they'll supply the witnesses, they'll give us the answers that we want.
JOHNSON: This week, he'll formally take the gavel as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Smith says he'll start to hold oversight hearings in February. And some of the items on the agenda this year might sound familiar. Remember that island prison in Cuba?
Rep. SMITH: You know we have a first class facility there. 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.
JOHNSON: 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.
Congressman SMITH: 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.
JOHNSON: 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 Eric Holder has been working overtime 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. Here's Holder describing his recent charm offensive.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (United States): There have been a number of social occasions where we've had an opportunity to get together: at the White House, a Redskins game, I had him over for lunch, I guess, a couple of weeks or so ago.
JOHNSON: But bonding with Lamar Smith is only the beginning. The Justice Department will also face oversight by three other important House committees. First, there's Peter King, a Republican from New York. He's leading the Homeland Security Committee, and he's been a fierce critic of terrorism prosecutions under Mr. Obama. Next, there's Republican Mike Rogers from Michigan. He'll be running the Intelligence Committee. And he's a former FBI agent who's been critical of that agency. And finally, Darrell Issa, a California Republican who's leading the Government Oversight panel.
Here's former Justice lobbyist Robert Raben. He says the challenge will be making sure that department leaders don't get sidetracked by endless congressional hearings, and when they're on Capitol Hill, knowing how to turn sometimes hostile questions to their advantage.
Mr. RABEN: 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.
JOHNSON: Attorney General Holder tried to strike a positive note at a recent press conference.
Attorney General HOLDER: And 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 an impact on the day to day lives of the American people.
JOHNSON: But after two years, members of the Obama administration know that hope ebbs and flows, and they're hoping that time works to their advantage.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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