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Over his four years in office, Attorney General Eric Holder has been a lightning rod for the president's fiercest critics. Lately, he's been on a hot seat of his own making: the Justice Department's aggressive stance toward reporters in cases of national security leaks. Holder heads to the Senate today, where lawmakers are sure to demand an explanation.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Even before Eric Holder was confirmed by the Senate, Republicans in Congress singled him out for criticism. Tracy Schmaler is Holder's former spokeswoman.

TRACY SCHMALER: I think with some members of Congress, particularly some Republicans, the attorney general has been a favorite target of theirs partly because he is the perfect proxy for the president.

JOHNSON: Schmaler says Holder's drawn all that attention because he's one of the more left-leaning members of the Cabinet, and he's personally close to President Obama and the first lady. Meanwhile, over the past couple of decades, the job of attorney general has become more politicized. That's something that makes Holder uncomfortable every time he goes to Capitol Hill, says one-time prosecutor and Senate lawyer Stephen Ryan.

STEPHEN RYAN: The question is: Is the attorney general ready for people who punch wildly and below the belt on occasion, and land some blows that are quite honest and above the belt? And so I think he's got some problems that, you know, in the second term, are hard to deal with.

JOHNSON: Problems like this one: Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee say they're investigating whether Holder gave false testimony when he told them last month he had never been involved in charging a reporter with a crime. Then word came that Holder approved court papers that called a Fox News reporter a possible co-conspirator in a national security leak case.

ANDREW MCBRIDE: I don't think there's any issue about perjury, and I think that's pure politics. The president's right about that.

JOHNSON: Andrew McBride's a Republican. He served in the Justice Department under Attorneys General Dick Thornburgh and William Barr. But McBride says Republicans in Congress do have a legitimate beef about Holder's treatment of reporters, especially a recently disclosed subpoena for the phone records of Associated Press reporters in another leak case. McBride says the Justice Department approved that subpoena through an internal process, without involving a judge or any neutral arbiter.

MCBRIDE: I think the larger question for the American people and our First Amendment freedoms, really: Is it time to give up the idea that the department can police itself on the issue of media subpoenas?

JOHNSON: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told CBS show "Face the Nation" that the attorney general needs to answer another question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: But I also think that the attorney general has to ask himself the question: Is he really able to effectively serve the president of the United States and the American people under the present circumstances? That's a decision he'd have to make.

JOHNSON: Holder's survived close calls before: uproar over his now-reversed decision to try the 9/11 plotters in New York City, controversy over civil rights cases and the law enforcement gun-trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious. The difference this time is that the tactics against reporters have alienated the president's political base and prompted even liberal outlets like The Huffington Post to demand the attorney general's resignation.

His former spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, says, don't hold your breath.

SCHMALER: I don't see him leaving anytime other than when he plans to leave.

JOHNSON: Veteran Washington lawyer Steve Ryan says he's not ready to offer a prediction on Holder's tenure. But Ryan says the self-inflicted wounds at the Justice Department give Republicans another item on their laundry list of second-term scandals.

RYAN: It does give the Republican House the ability to paint, in a pointillist way, that the picture is of an administration in disarray or out of tune, and I think that that's damaging to the president, and it's damaging at the wrong time in his administration.

JOHNSON: He'll be watching whether Holder, in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Panel, can repair some of that damage.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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