By Jordy Yager - 06/20/12 08:21 PM EDT
A House panel voted Wednesday to place Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for his failure to comply with a subpoena, defying an assertion of executive privilege from President Obama.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.), approved a resolution along party lines to place Holder in contempt after battling him for months over access to internal agency documents about the gun-tracking operation known as "Fast and Furious."
All 23 Republicans on the committee voted for the contempt resolution, while all 17 Democrats voted against it. Every member of the panel was present for the vote.
Minutes after the panel's decision, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced that the full House will vote on the contempt measure next week.
"While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the attorney general reevaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week," the Republican leaders said in a statement. "If, however, Attorney General Holder produces these documents prior to the scheduled vote, we will give the Oversight Committee an opportunity to review in hopes of resolving this issue."
Holder blasted Issa in a statement following the vote while touting the efforts the DOJ has made to try and meet the chairman's demands.
"From the beginning, Chairman Issa and certain members of the committee have made unsubstantiated allegations first, then scrambled for facts to try to justify them later," said Holder.
"That might make for good political theater, but it does little to uncover the truth or address the problems associated with this operation and prior ones dating back to the previous administration."
Obama’s move to bring the Fast and Furious documents under executive privilege came just minutes before the panel began the contempt proceedings. In the letter announcing Obama’s decision, Deputy Attorney General James Cole argued DOJ has made “extraordinary efforts to accommodate the committee’s legitimate oversight interests.”
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“The information provided to the Committee shows clearly that the Department leadership did not intend to mislead Congress in the February 4 letter or in any other statements concerning Fast and Furious,” Cole said in the letter.
Issa said the assertion of privilege by Obama fell short of any reason to delay the vote against Holder.
Four amendments were offered to the contempt resolution, including one by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) that would have postponed the contempt move until the committee investigated the “gun-walking” instances that occurred under former President George W. Bush’s administration.
“Does it make sense to take a little but more time to work this out?” asked Welch, before his amendment was defeated along party lines by Republicans.
The high-stakes move against the attorney general came after talks to avoid the contempt vote fell apart Tuesday evening.
Holder attempted to exchange the requested documents for an agreement from Issa to drop his two subpoenas and the contempt measure. But the powerful Republican balked at anything short of a full document production while making no guarantees in return.
Issa wants documents that he says would show how much Justice knows about Fast and Furious, a controversial gun-tracking operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Holder has insisted he did not know of the operation.
Obama has denied knowledge of Fast and Furious, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Obama's assertion of executive privilege raises "monumental questions" about whether the White House was involved in the authorization of or the fallout from the botched operation.
"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen?" Grassley said in a statement. "Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"
A spokesman for Boehner questioned whether Obama is “bending the law to hide the truth.”
"Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. “The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed. The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?”
Democrats on the Oversight panel were indignant about Wednesday's vote. Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.), a former chairman of the Oversight committee, ripped Issa for the way he has conducted the Fast and Furious investigation, calling it the “most ridiculous thing” he has seen in his years on the panel.
“I think this is a mistake, a major mistake,” Towns said. “It’s a discredit to this committee.”
The Congressional Tri-Caucus, meanwhile, condemned the move as “politics at its worst.” The caucus consists of nearly 80, mostly Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
“This is an extremely low moment in our body politic,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Ill.), the chairman of the CBC. “The cause for civility has been met by an unnecessary and unfortunate partisanship.”
The pressure on the Obama administration over Fast and Furious has been building for months.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) garnered the support of 114 Republicans for a separate resolution that would express Congress’s lack of confidence in Holder and essentially call for him to step down because of how he has handled the operation.
Even with 242 Republicans in the House majority, it remains unclear whether the contempt measure would have the backing of the full caucus. Many GOP members have resisted action on the Fast and Furious issue out of a desire to keep the 2012 election focus on the economy and jobs.
In the past, the mere threat of contempt has been enough to compel the Justice Department to produce the documents requested by Congress, and the House has only voted on one contempt resolution in recent years. That resolution passed the Democratic-controlled House largely along party lines, but then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, under Bush, refused to enforce the contempt measure against two senior White House officials, citing executive privilege.
If the measure against Holder passes the House, it will be sent to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who will convene a grand jury that would decide whether to indict Holder. The U.S. Attorney’s office would be the designated prosecutor for the committee if Holder were to be indicted. The attorney general would face a maximum sentence of one year in prison if convicted by a jury.
Fast and Furious was an attempt by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to track the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico by drug cartels in hopes of dismantling their network. Nearly 2,000 guns were sold in the United States to straw buyers for the cartels, but instead of tracking the weapons, ATF agents were ordered to let them go with the hope of rediscovering them later at a crime scene or drug bust. Hundreds were lost.
The Department of Justice's inspector general, at the request of Holder, has been investigating Fast and Furious for more than a year. Issa has been conducting his own probe.
— This story was last updated at 4:38 p.m.