By Jordy Yager - 06/28/12 12:49 AM EDT
Several Democrats on Wednesday said they would vote to place Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, giving Republicans an opportunity to tout bipartisan support for the effort against President Obama’s attorney general.
At least four Democrats in GOP-leaning districts said they’d side with Republicans and back the contempt measure in the wake of the National Rifle Association’s decision to score the vote.
The contempt measure is expected to pass mostly along partisan lines, but there is intense pressure on Democrats in conservative-leaning districts to side with the NRA against Obama’s chief law enforcement officer.
Fox News on Wednesday reported as many as 20 Democrats could break with President Obama. Double-digit defections would help Republicans make the case that the contempt action was bipartisan.
Emotions ran high ahead of the vote as the House Rules Committee met in an emergency session Wednesday to hear from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
The frustration between the dueling leaders of the Oversight panel was palpable in the cramped hearing room as Issa and Cummings traded barbs and fielded nearly three hours’ worth of questions from lawmakers on why the House should consider voting on civil and criminal contempt charges against Holder.
Issa blasted DOJ for engaging in a “cover-up” and likened the “Fast and Furious” scandal to the Watergate and Iran-Contra controversies. He acknowledged that he had not conducted his investigation in a bipartisan manner because Cummings had not “lived up to” his promise to the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry to bring the party responsible to justice.
“All we’re asking for, and the reason for contempt is, we were told a lie and we want to know about the deliberations for 10 months between the lie and the truth,” said Issa on Wednesday.
Cummings and Democrats on the Rules panel balked at Issa’s assertions, while pressing for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to engage directly with Holder after staff from the offices of Boehner, Issa, the White House and the DOJ failed to reach an agreement Tuesday night.
But Boehner gave no indication that he was planning to steer away from the scheduled vote, saying only that he regretted the situation.
“We’d really rather not be there,” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. “We’d really rather have the attorney general and the president work with us to get to the bottom of a very serious issue.
“It’s an unfortunate place where we are. But our members raise their right hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States. And we’re going to do our job.”
Fueling the Republicans’ confidence were the four Democratic defections.
“While Republicans and Democrats argue over the scope of the people’s right to know what happened, the attorney general has decided to withhold relevant documents,” Barrow said in a statement announcing his decision.
“The only way to get to the bottom of what happened is for the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents so that we can work together to ensure this tragedy never happens again.”
Other Democrats vowed to fight back. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) announced plans to stage a walkout during Thursday’s vote, and pressed other Democrats to join in.
“We call upon all members of Congress to stand with us during a press conference on the Capitol Building steps during this appalling series of votes to discuss our nation’s most significant priority — creating jobs,” stated a “Dear Colleague” letter set to be sent by the 43-member CBC and a number of other minority caucus groups.
“At this critically important time in our nation, we must work as colleagues rather than political enemies.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a member of the CBC, hand-delivered a letter to Boehner signed by 65 other Democrats asking the Speaker to cancel the contempt vote.
“Holding the nation’s top law-enforcement officer in contempt of Congress would be a drastic, disproportionate action on the part of this body,” the letter stated.
Issa has led Congress’s investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a program that might have contributed to the killing of Terry in 2010.
At the center of the dispute is a letter that the Justice Department sent last year to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) stating the agency does everything in its power to stop guns from going into Mexico. Ten months later, the DOJ took the rare step of withdrawing the letter because of false information.
Issa subpoenaed Holder for documents related to the DOJ letter, but the attorney general has refused to fully comply.
Last week, the president asserted executive privilege over the documents in question, which could set Congress up for a battle in the courts if the House passes the contempt resolution on Thursday.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that House Republicans are making a “strategic choice” to “score political points” on Fast and Furious.
“They’ve made that choice rather than focusing on jobs and the economy,” Carney said. “With millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills, I can’t imagine this will sit well with most Americans.”
Carney’s comments echoed the party’s recent messaging. Democrats over the past week have tried to deflate the Republican push for the contempt vote by pointing out that the more time and energy that is spent on the debate over Fast and Furious, the less time devoted to solving economic problems.
— Amie Parnes and Russell Berman contributed.