Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation has caught many on Capitol Hill by surprise, punctuating a stormy tenure of mutual disdain between him and congressional critics who said Thursday they were happy to see him go.
Holder, the only sitting presidential Cabinet member ever to be held in contempt of Congress, had already made it clear in recent months that he was nearing the end of patience with Congress. He told The New Yorker that he would leave office by the end of 2014. And he expressed clear anger in April in addressing the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the day after a tense appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
"Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee," Holder told the crowd. "What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?"
Still, the exact timing of his resignation was news Thursday to many in Congress who did not receive advance notice from the administration.
Holder will stay on as attorney general until President Obama has nominated his successor and received Senate approval. That could be a difficult bargain, given the likelihood that Republicans will take over the chamber after the midterm elections in November. It was unclear Thursday whether Obama, who reportedly learned of Holder's pending resignation over Labor Day weekend, would attempt to fill the position during the lame-duck session that begins on Nov. 12.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy told MSNBC that he had spoken with both Holder and the White House earlier Thursday and was hopeful that the administration "would be able to decide the nomination soon." Leahy went on to praise Holder, saying: "I have been here throughout a lot of attorneys general. Nobody has done it better than he has."
Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee—and the only African-American to ever command that panel's gavel—praised Holder for his "utmost distinguished service in the Obama administration." He also said Holder's work in "advancing civil rights for all is unparalleled."
That sentiment was hardly echoed by Republicans on either side of the Capitol, who cast Holder's resignation as a victory.
"Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history," said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been the most visible and aggressive of critics.
Added Issa: "While President Obama and the Senate should work expeditiously to find a replacement, time and care must be taken to ensure that our next Attorney General recognizes and does not repeat Mr. Holder's mistakes."
Such tension between Holder and many House Republicans in particular has been a mark of his tenure. In a statement Thursday, Issa made a point of recalling the unprecedented House vote in June 2012 to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress.
That move came over Holder's refusal to release internal documents tied to a botched federal gun-trafficking investigation, known as Operation Fast and Furious, linked to the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December 2010. The White House at the time dismissed the move as a "stunt," and more than 100 members of the House Democratic Caucus walked out on the vote, which ended in a 255-67 tally in favor of contempt in the 435-seat House.
The House action had little substantive impact, though it did increase the acrimony between Holder and Capitol Hill.
Still, 17 Democrats joined with Republicans in voting "aye," Issa pointed out Thursday. He also noted that a parallel civil contempt case is currently before a federal judge.
Holder's tenure was marked by other controversies that have put the administration and agencies throughout Washington on the defensive, and featured Holder himself engaging in verbal skirmishes in personal appearances before House committees.
The face-offs included congressional digging into revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny.
And there was also lawmaker outrage over the department's seizure of communications from the Associated Press in the government's ongoing inquiry into how information about a foiled terror plot against the U.S. was leaked to the news organization. Holder has said he played no part in that decision. So, too, were there complaints that Holder had to address of the supposed mishandling of intelligence prior to the Boston bombings—and even the administration's response to the Benghazi attack.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said Thursday, "From Operation Fast and Furious to his misleading testimony before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Department's dealings with members of the media and his refusal to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS' targeting of conservative groups, Mr. Holder has consistently played partisan politics with many of the important issues facing the Justice Department."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called Holder's resignation a "welcome" move.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized Holder's tenure as characterized by a "lack of respect for Congress, the taxpayer and the laws on the books."
Grassley, whose committee will vet an eventual nominee to replace Holder, also cautioned Obama not to try to push through a new nominee during the lame duck session, arguing that Congress will need time to vet Holder's replacement. Grassley noted that he voted in favor of Holder's nomination, but later regretted it.
"I hope the President will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual who can start fresh relationships with Congress so that we can solve the problems facing our country," he said in a statement.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz also called on Obama to wait until after the election to nominate a successor. "Allowing Democratic senators, many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls, to confirm Holder's successor would be an abuse of power that should not be countenanced," Cruz said.
But others, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge of Ohio, said Holder will be sorely missed when he leaves office.
"As the first African American to serve in this role, Attorney General Holder has presided over the Department of Justice during a time where issues of equal treatment and protection under the law have been widely challenged and debased in our nation," Fudge said. But, she added, Holder "has never hesitated to remind us that the pursuit of justice is a fundamental right and integral to the survival of our democracy."
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil-rights icon, said he was saddened by the news and thanked Holder on Thursday for his years of service.
"His resignation is a great loss for any American seeking justice in our society," Lewis said. "He became the symbol of fairness, an embodiment of the best in the federal government."