By Jordy Yager - 06/21/12 12:32 AM 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 “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation.
The vote came just hours after Obama escalated the conflict by sending a letter to the committee claiming executive privilege over the documents Issa had sought.
Minutes after the panel’s decision, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced that the full House would 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.”
Obama’s move to bring the Fast and Furious documents under executive privilege — a first for his presidency — came shortly before the panel began the contempt proceedings. In a letter announcing Obama’s decision, Deputy Attorney General James Cole argued DOJ had made “extraordinary efforts” to comply with Issa’s investigation.
“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 Obama’s move caught him by surprise, but fell short of being a reason to delay the vote.
“I still believe that a settlement, rendering the process of contempt unnecessary, is in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious,” Issa said in a statement following the vote. “I urge Attorney General Holder and President Obama to reconsider their decision to withhold documents that would allow Congress to complete its investigation.”
Holder was defiant after the rebuke and accused Issa of drumming up “political theater” at his expense.
“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,” Holder said.
“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.”
The high-stakes move against Obama’s 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 full compliance while only promising to consider the future of his investigation in light of the information in the documents.
Issa wants documents he says would show how much Justice knew 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 also 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 the vote against Holder. Rep. Edolphus 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.”
“This is an extremely low moment in our body politic,” agreed Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “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.) has 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.
But there is also some unease in the Republican Conference about the conflict. Many GOP members want to keep the focus firmly on the economy and jobs ahead of the election, and it remains unclear whether the contempt measure will have the backing of all 242 members of the conference.
Votes on contempt measures are rare in Congress. In the past, the mere threat of contempt has been enough to compel the Justice Department to produce documents, and the House has only voted on one contempt resolution in recent years.
That resolution passed the Democrat-controlled House largely along party lines, but then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, under President George W. Bush, refused to enforce the contempt measure against two senior White House officials, citing executive privilege.
Before Wednesday, the only contempt measure against an attorney general was from 1998, against Janet Reno. That measure never reached the full House for a vote.
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 the attorney general. The U.S. attorney’s office would be the designated prosecutor if an indictment were issued.
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 ATF to track the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico in the hopes of dismantling drug cartels’ 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.
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, and most recently was seeking documents pertaining to a Feb. 4, 2011, letter in which Justice claimed it did everything it could to prevent guns from “walking” into the hands of criminals.
Ten months later, Justice admitted the letter contained falsities and withdrew it.