Issa threatens AG Holder with contempt; Justice Dept. calls move 'political'

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Monday announced that his panel will vote next week to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress if he fails to provide documents related to the controversial Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.

The dramatic move is the culmination of a 15-month battle between Holder and Issa.

A spokesman for Issa told The Hill on Monday that in order to avoid a vote on the contempt measure next week, the DOJ needs to signal a marked shift in its desire to cooperate with the committee, as well as present the panel’s chairman with a detailed list of documents it cannot give him.

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“If the Justice Department is serious about reaching an agreement, it needs to clearly indicate how it is prepared to alter its opposition to producing these documents and list the individual items it still believes it cannot produce,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, in an email.

Issa has been building support for the move for months, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) threw their weight behind the decision on Monday.

“The Justice Department is out of excuses,” Boehner said. “Either the Justice Department turns over the information requested, or Congress will have no choice but to move forward with holding the attorney general in contempt for obstructing an ongoing investigation.”

With the official GOP backing, Issa said he is gunning for the support of 31 Democrats who wrote a letter to Holder last year expressing their concern over the operation. No Democrat has publicly endorsed placing Holder in contempt of Congress.

“The real question is, we’re opening up the data that we have to all the members, so as they start reading specifics of what we know was known and was hidden from Congress, and what we’d like to know and been denied, how many of the Democrats will vote with us,” Issa told Buzzfeed after an address in New York. “I expect we’ll have about 31 Democrats with us.”

The DOJ and the White House immediately blasted Issa’s announcement, saying that the head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was playing “political games at the expense of all Americans.”

Issa contends that Holder is undermining Congress’s constitutional authority to oversee the executive branch by refusing to provide him with documents despite an October subpoena.

But a DOJ spokeswoman said Issa has twisted and ignored the facts in his investigation of Fast and Furious, which authorized the sale of nearly 2,000 guns in the Southwest to straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels.

Issa is operating with a “tired political playbook,” according to a Justice spokeswoman who said the chairman’s decision to schedule the contempt vote — which he had threatened to do for more than four months — completely subverts talks aimed at a resolution.

“As recently as a few days ago, the department staff and committee staff were discussing a way toward a resolution of this matter,” said DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. “The attorney general and the Department of Justice will remain focused on the critical job of protecting this nation and the American people while Chairman Issa continues to play these political games at the expense of all Americans.”

Holder is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for the panel’s biannual oversight hearing of the DOJ.

The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), launched Congress’s investigation into Fast and Furious after concerned agents in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) came to him with evidence of “gun walking.” The ATF oversaw the operation, which might have contributed to the killing of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in 2010.

Issa has long been exasperated with Holder, frequently grilling him and shouting over the attorney general’s testimony during his appearances before Congress, in between talking to cable news shows to accuse the DOJ of conducting a “cover-up.”

The aggressive style with which Issa has pursued his investigation might have cost him some initial support. House Republican leadership was slow to back the chairman publicly, and although GOP leaders say they have supported Issa all along, their first comments on the issue came about one year after he launched the investigation.

But last week, an anonymous source gave Issa a significant step up in his investigation by handing the chairman a series of six wiretap applications used in Fast and Furious. Issa says the contents of the documents, which have not been released publicly, indicate that high-level DOJ officials knew about and approved the “gun walking” tactics.

The documents are under a federal court-ordered seal, which makes it a federal crime to release them to Issa, who has long requested them from the DOJ. Holder has said that it would be illegal for him to give Issa the documents.

In a letter to Issa on Monday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole offered again to meet personally with the Republican about the remaining documents he has asked for. And during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Holder offered to meet privately with Boehner, Issa, Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Holder’s main argument for not being more forthcoming with documents to Issa has been his desire to wait for the DOJ’s independent inspector general (IG) to complete its investigation of the failed operation. Holder ordered the probe in March 2011, after he says he first became aware of the magnitude of the problem.

The debacle of Fast and Furious has proven to be a point of conflict not only between the DOJ and Republicans on Capitol Hill; according to the Mexican ambassador to the United States, the operation has severely strained relations between the country and its southern neighbor.

Roughly half of the nearly 2,000 guns have been recovered, according to DOJ and ATF estimations, but many of the remaining weapons are believed to be in Mexico, which has been waging a bloody war against drug cartels for more than four years.

—Ian Swanson contributed to this report.

— Updated at 8:26 p.m.