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House Democrats Hire New Top Lawyer To Defend Affordable Care Act


Only hours after Nancy Pelosi took the gavel as speaker of the House, her lawyers intervened in a court case. Democrats aren't wasting any time defending the Affordable Care Act. That's because they say the Trump administration won't. The fate of that health care law is one of the key battles ahead for Douglas Letter, the new top lawyer in the House. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Douglas Letter spent four decades at the Justice Department. For most of that time, his job was to defend the prerogative of the executive branch, no matter which political party held the White House.


DOUGLAS LETTER: My father and several other people in my family were also career public servants. And so I grew up feeling like public service was a calling.

JOHNSON: Letter retired from Justice last year around the time of that interview. Now he's found a new way to serve. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected Letter to be general counsel of the U.S. House. Pelosi cited his years of service and legal expertise. Ironically, some of that expertise involves how the executive branch might try to fend off inquiries from Congress. Mary McCord was a colleague of Letter's at the Justice Department and at Georgetown Law Center.

MARY MCCORD: This is a person with 40 years of experience defending the U.S. government. So he knows, frankly, every trick in the book when it comes to litigating against the U.S. government.

JOHNSON: McCord says that insight will come in handy now that Letter is advising lawmakers who want to make a priority investigating the Trump administration.

IRVIN NATHAN: Oversight by the House is a key part of our constitutional system. And it simply cannot and should not be resisted by the executive branch.

JOHNSON: That's Irvin Nathan, a longtime Washington lawyer. Nathan once worked for Pelosi as general counsel of the House, the same job Letter now has.

NATHAN: What's important is it's a nonpartisan job. It's a job that protects the institution of the U.S. House.

JOHNSON: But Nathan says clashes with the White House and Cabinet agencies are inevitable. The administration has already signaled it may try to resist subpoenas and requests for testimony. That's happened before. When Nathan had the job, he wound up suing the George W. Bush administration, which fought efforts to subpoena the former White House counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. Lawmakers won in court, but it took a while. Nathan says Democrats are going to have to prioritize and keep an eye on the calendar.

NATHAN: They're going to have to move quickly and ask the court to expedite the proceeding since, you know, there's is only two years in the House, and people can drag out litigation. So that's going to be a key test for Doug and his office.

JOHNSON: Nathan says House leaders could take advantage of other options, hitting pause on the White House's legislative priorities or using their power of the purse to deny funding for some of Trump's plans. For now, a top priority for House leaders is defending the Affordable Care Act. And Letter has enlisted a familiar ally. He's hired President Obama's former solicitor general, Don Verrilli, to back that health care law. Verrilli famously won a Supreme Court case over the ACA in 2012, and Democrats are hoping history repeats. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES' "HUNG UP ON MY BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.