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House GOP confronts yawning gap between anti-DOJ rhetoric and political reality

Republicans in Congress raged against Attorney General Merrick Garland for hours on Tuesday, but after a heated day-long inquisition they extracted no narrative-shifting information to use against him.

Republicans spent hours sparring with Garland over former special counsel Robert Hur, special counsel Jack Smith and the state-level prosecutions of Trump — but got little new information out of the attorney general on any of those fronts. Republicans, on multiple occasions, accused him of either refusing to answer, not knowing the answer and, in one instance, whining a lot.

Garland, for his part, delivered an uncharacteristically pointed defense of the Justice Department’s independence and accused Republicans of trying to hold him in contempt for political purposes.

“These repeated attacks on the Justice Department are unprecedented and unfounded,” Garland told lawmakers. “I view contempt as a serious matter. But I will not jeopardize the ability of our prosecutors and agents to do their jobs effectively in future investigations. I will not be intimidated.”

The hearing marked the latest episode in Republicans’ escalating vows to go after the DOJ and state-level prosecutors for investigating Trump, particularly after his 34-count conviction. Earlier that morning, Speaker Mike Johnson touted his “three-pronged” plan to rein in the DOJ, touching on spending bills, separate legislation and oversight work.

Yet all three of those fronts come with nearly insurmountable obstacles. Republicans’ single-digit control of the chamber remains an inconvenient reality, and the House GOP has already repeatedly failed in its attempts to make sweeping changes to the justice system this term using Johnson’s three prongs: going after DOJ funding, spotlighting oversight hearings and long-running pursuit of President Joe Biden’s impeachment that has delved into the DOJ but flatlined.

Even if the House could pass spending bills to rein in the DOJ, they’re unlikely to go anywhere with the Democratic-controlled Senate. This week’s Delaware trial of Hunter Biden poses its own separate problem for the party’s argument, forcing Johnson to publicly swat down a question Tuesday about whether that prosecution refutes his and Trump’s claim that the courts are targeting Republicans.

Despite the low chances of tangible success, the speaker is pushing ahead anyway — even as some Republicans have acknowledged that their best shot is hoping Trump wins in November. According to three Republicans in Tuesday morning’s private GOP conference meeting, Johnson talked up Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) proposals to use the power of the federal purse to rein in Trump’s prosecutors at both the federal and state levels. Conservatives pushed similar ideas in the last spending cycle, but the House GOP’s DOJ funding bill unraveled amid party infighting.

Johnson’s own members acknowledge they’re not sure whether anything can get enough GOP votes to pass the House this time around, either: “That’s going to be always a challenge in the moment,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who leads the conference’s largest internal caucus.

Even as Garland clashed with Johnson’s members over their push to obtain audio of former special counsel Robert Hur’s interview with Biden, it’s not clear when House GOP leadership will be able to call a floor vote on holding the attorney general in contempt for refusing to release that audio.

Asked about the Garland contempt vote on Tuesday, Johnson told POLITICO that “a decision hasn’t been set.”

Garland also rebuffed pro-Trump Republicans’ questions about the state-level prosecution of the former president in New York. He called false claims that the DOJ controlled that investigation a “conspiracy theory” and an “attack on the judicial process itself.”

Johnson signaled on Tuesday that he’s becoming more open to using the government funding bills to go after the DOJ, but it still won’t be enough for many conservatives. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she asked Johnson during Tuesday’s closed-door meeting if he would be willing to shut down the government to strip out that DOJ funding.

“I don’t know if he’s willing to do that. So it’s just more talk,” she said after the gathering concluded. “Unless he’s willing to go and fight for legislative action that we actually take and pass in the House, then it means nothing. And that’s how the people see it.”

Greene is also threatening to trigger a vote as soon as this week on impeaching Biden. Republicans are far short of the votes to actually recommend booting the president, and it’s possible that leadership would table her maneuver or send it to committee — but a failure to move forward would likely still irk an already frustrated pro-Trump base.

Greene isn’t the only one skeptical that Republicans’ DOJ funding dreams will turn into a reality. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said he would “love to see” funding bills that defund Trump’s prosecutors, but he laughed when asked if he thought it would actually happen.

“I don’t know. I have no idea. I think a better question is, what are the odds we’re actually going to get approps bills,” Biggs said.

GOP leadership has an ambitious — and unrealistic, some Republicans say privately — plan to pass all 12 government funding bills on the House floor by the end of July. Last year, they managed to pass only seven before punting the rest because of GOP infighting.

And while lawmakers float dozens, if not hundreds, of policy ideas to attach to funding bills, very few of them actually make it into the final product.

“People have been wanting to use the appropriations process for policy things for a long time. … We’ll see. It’s a long process,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chair of the powerful appropriations subpanel that funds the Pentagon.

Republicans have already taken one stab at FBI-related spending: Cutting off federal funds for a new FBI headquarters. The GOP’s first draft of a fiscal year 2025 financial services funding bill, spearheaded by Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), rejects a $3.5 billion proposal to build a new FBI headquarters.

It also withholds prior funding until lawmakers receive a plan to “continue operation of the current headquarters or to identify another existing, federally-owned DC building to serve as the headquarters.”

Still, conservatives pushed that same goal last year before it was ultimately stripped out of Congress’ final spending bills. Even if they managed to pass that provision again this time, FBI changes won’t meet the high bar that conservatives have set for more sweeping DOJ cuts.

Asked more broadly about using the appropriations bills to target funding for Trump’s prosecutors, Joyce pushed back: “I’ve never been a fan of those types of things. We fund operations. Just because you don’t like the operation doesn’t mean you don’t fund it.”

Some centrist Republicans would rather keep focusing elsewhere. Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), a Biden-district Republican, argued that instead of the fight with the DOJ the election will be decided by issues like the border and Biden’s foreign policy decisions.

“The speaker obviously is putting forth a plan with respect to looking at oversight of how the Department of Justice and our justice system has been used for political purposes. We’ll see what comes of that,” he added.

Caitlin Emma contributed reporting.

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