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The nomination of John Ashcroft as the next attorney general may be stalled in the Senate. But the Justice Department isn’t nearly as paralyzed. Acting Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., a holdover from the Clinton administration, nominally remains in charge of the department, but a team of more than a dozen Republicans has already established a beachhead in its mammoth Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters. Working out of the deputy attorney general’s office, the group is busy trying to get a handle on the often unruly 100,000-employee federal bureaucracy. The transition effort has been overseen by Paul McNulty, a former aide to Rep. Richard Armey, R-Texas, and a Justice Department official during the senior Bush administration. McNulty has assumed the job of principal associate deputy attorney general — a key policy-making position. Robert Mueller, in the meantime, has taken charge of the department’s operations as the acting deputy attorney general. Mueller, currently the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, has been working with Holder. Mueller ran the department’s Criminal Division under former President George Bush. In the mid-1990s, he served as chief of the homicide unit in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District, when Holder was U.S. attorney. Mueller’s arrival in Washington has sparked speculation that he is line for the permanent job of deputy attorney general, the No. 2 post in the DOJ, for which he would have to win Senate confirmation. Mueller declined comment through DOJ transition spokesman Frank Shults, a former spokesman for Drug Enforcement Agency. Right now, Holder says, the Republican transition team is “playing catch-up,” attempting to get up to speed on pending matters. “They have a much tougher job than I do,” he says. “I feel for them. It’s kind of like trying to take a sip of water out of a fire hose.” As is typical in the switch of a government run by one political party to that of the other, all Clinton administration political appointees in the department have already departed their supervisory posts. Taking their place are career officials who will manage the component divisions of the department until new appointees are selected by the Bush White House and confirmed by the Senate. The transition team is holding meetings regularly with those senior career officials. All policy decisions are on hold until the new AG is in place. Otherwise, the department is moving forward. “This transition team is active,” Shults says. “We are working very hard with the career attorneys in the department to continue the business of the office.” Last week, for example, DOJ lawyers indicted officials of two Japanese chemical companies on price-fixing charges. The department also agreed to a $110 million settlement with Shell Oil over allegations that Shell underpaid oil royalties due the federal government. And it resolved a 25-year lawsuit filed against the District of Columbia over its treatment of the mentally disabled. Lawrence Barcella, a veteran criminal defense attorney in the D.C. office of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District, says that the switch-over doesn’t affect “95 to 98 percent” of the department’s activities. Most of the time, Barcella says, “it’s the career professionals whose judgment ends up getting accepted.” SMOOTH OPERATOR Holder, a man known for his good relationship with the Clinton White House, has become something like a soldier trapped behind enemy lines. Former Attorney General Janet Reno left the job Jan. 20, but Holder, who served as Reno’s deputy, volunteered to stay on to aid the incoming Bush administration in the transition. “It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Holder says. “This is a place I love.” His tone toward the new administration is conciliatory. Holder says he is consulting with Mueller on all major decisions and sees his own role as ensuring that the transition goes as smoothly as possible. “The reality is that I’m not here as a holdover,” Holder says, “but as a person who wants this administration to get off to a good start. My loyalty right now is to this president.” As for the prospective attorney general, John Ashcroft, Holder says he has met the former Missouri senator only when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But, Holder says, “he seems like a capable man.” Holder’s tenure could be a short one. There is a chance that Ashcroft could take over the department by the end of the week. Senate Democrats forced a postponement of the Judiciary Committee’s vote on Ashcroft’s nomination, asking the nominee to answer more than 400 written questions about his stances on various issues. Fred McClure, a Texas lobbyist who has been advising Ashcroft during the nomination process, said the answers to those questions were expected to be finished by the end of last week. He hopes to have a Judiciary Committee vote today, with a floor vote on Ashcroft’s nomination coming as soon as the next day. While several Senate Democrats have publicly opposed Ashcroft, he is still expected to be confirmed. Two leading Democrats, Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have said they would not support a Democratic effort to block a Senate floor vote. Ashcroft has been sketchy about his plans for the department. During his confirmation hearing testimony, he failed to outline any specific initiatives he would pursue. But he is expected to place heavy emphasis on traditional Republican law enforcement issues such as aggressive drug prosecutions. He also said that he believed the department had become distracted by the scandals of the Clinton administration. “He wants to do all he can to boost morale over there,” McClure says. THE PLEDGE In the course of his testimony, Ashcroft, a hard-line conservative while in the Senate, pledged to not attempt to overturn the seminal abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, and promised to support a continued ban on assault weapons. He also told senators that he would not interfere with ongoing Justice Department studies on racial profiling and the disproportionate application of the federal death penalty. Two of the largest cases pending in the department are the antitrust suit against the Microsoft Corp., currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and the government’s racketeering suit against the tobacco industry. Ashcroft would not commit to a position on the Microsoft case. As for the tobacco suit, Ashcroft said that he was “no friend of the tobacco industry” and that he had “no predisposition to dismiss that suit.” While Ashcroft awaits a vote on his nomination, Mueller has been at the DOJ trying to get a grip on the department’s policies and prosecutions. Unlike Ashcroft, Mueller has shown an ability to attract allies among Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite serving in the Justice Department under former President Bush, Mueller was selected by Reno in 1998 to take over the U.S. attorney’s job in San Francisco on an interim basis. There, he quickly won over the local federal bench with his radical restructuring of the office and was supported by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., for the permanent spot. He was confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate in 1999. He gained attention in California for aggressively pursuing securities fraud and environmental prosecutions and actively promoting female lawyers in the office to senior positions. DOJ spokesman Shults says Mueller hasn’t indicated what his future plans are. Some who know him well say that Mueller is happy as U.S. attorney in San Francisco and wants to return. Holder, in fact, says he thinks Mueller’s “preference is to go back.” Holder, meanwhile, doesn’t know what he will do when his short-lived stint as attorney general ends. He’s worked in the federal government since 1976. But he says he is looking forward to taking several months off to spend time with his family. After that, he says, “I’m going to have to find what my wife calls ‘a real job.’ “

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