Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. testifies on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Win McNamee, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — For years, embattled Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has repeatedly vowed not to resign under pressure. But on Thursday he talked of "fatigue" and admitted he thought of a day when he would meet with the president at the White House to discuss moving on.
Holder, testifying before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, sharply defended his work as the Obama administration's top federal law enforcement official. But he also said: "There are certain goals that I set for myself and for this department when I started back in 2009. When I get to a point where I think that I have accomplished all the goals that I set, I will sit down with the president and we'll talk about a transition to a new attorney general."
Holder did not indicate when that meeting might occur. But later in the hearing, when asked about future budget problems because of the federal government's sequestration process, he said that "whoever is the attorney general a year or two years from now" will have to deal with those issues.
Holder has been under increasing fire, mostly from Republicans, on a number of fronts, including the leak investigations that have ensnared news media reporters and the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. Earlier in his tenure, he was criticized for trying to move the trial of self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others to New York, and he has been targeted for wanting to close the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A growing number of conservatives have called for his resignation, and though he did not discuss it at the hearing, he said earlier this week that he had no immediate plans to step down.
But, he said Thursday, "I think that change is frequently a good thing for an organization, a new perspective."
He added: "This has been the honor of my professional life, to serve as attorney general. But I also have such respect for the Department of Justice that I want to make sure that it operates at peak efficiency and that new ideas are constantly being explored."
The panel's ranking minority member, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), hammered Holder for what he called losing the trust of the public, and suggested it was time for Holder's meeting with President Obama.
"The American people need to know that the administration of justice headed by the attorney general is in the hands of a dispassionate and capable leader," he told Holder. "And whether you will continue to be the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government, the attorney general, is either a decision for you or the president to make."
He asked the attorney general: "What's the tipping point here? Are you going to clear up this controversy or is it going to hover over us and the Justice Department?"
Holder responded: "The tipping point might be fatigue. You get to a point where you just get tired."
And yet, he said: "I'm proud of the work that I've done. I'm proud of the work that the men and women of this department have done under my leadership. And when the time comes for me to step aside for my successor, I will do so."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) defended Holder. "I believe in your integrity," she told him. "I believe that you are a good attorney general. I think you've had undue problems.... I think you have responded the best you possibly could. And I just want to say that because, candidly, I don't like to see this hearing used to berate you."