Senate GOP cautious on contempt vote

Senate Republicans are keeping their distance from the push in the House to place Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

The cautious approach is an indication that some in the Senate GOP don’t see the conflict driving the Holder vote — the Fast and Furious operation that let guns “walk” into the hands of criminals — as a winning issue in an election year dominated by the economy.

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Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told The Hill they support congressional oversight of the botched gun-tracking operation but stopped short of endorsing the contempt measure being pushed in the House by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) with the support of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants.

“I haven’t followed it, because it’s not a Senate issue,” said Portman, who is reportedly on Mitt Romney’s shortlist of potential running mates.
“It probably does [distract from the jobs message] in a sense,” Portman said. “But on the other hand, it’s an appropriate policy matter to raise and that’s part of our jobs here in Congress, is to raise oversight issues. So I don’t think we should be not doing things because they don’t fit into a certain category.”

Collins, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she hoped Holder could avoid Thursday’s contempt vote by handing over the cache of documents that Issa has requested. But President Obama has asserted executive privilege to prevent that from happening.

“Congressional committees in general have the right to subpoena documents and conduct oversight of the executive branch, particularly on a program that went so fatally wrong as Fast and Furious,” she said. “So my hope is that this vote will be avoided through negotiations that lead the Justice Department to make a full production of the documents.”

Earlier this month, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, became the highest-ranking Senate Republican to call for Holder’s resignation over his handling of Fast and Furious.

Senate Republican leaders, however, declined to ratchet up their rhetoric. They backed an investigation of Holder but stopped short of calling for his ouster.

“I’m listening carefully to what my colleagues are saying. I think we’re all unhappy with the performance of the attorney general,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

House and Senate Democrats, along with a group of 10 national civil rights leaders, on Tuesday chastised Republicans for turning the focus away from the economy and unemployment.

“I don’t think that’s going to create a single job, and so that’s how I feel about it,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said when asked about the contempt vote.

“This is sheer, basic, low-level politics at its best, or worst, however you look at it.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office accused Boehner of dropping the ball on the transportation bill, which funds job-creating highway and road projects, while working toward the contempt vote.

“It’s easy for Speaker Boehner to take his eye off the ball when the House GOP has so many other games to play, such as: leading a politically motivated witch hunt,” Pelosi’s office said in a memo.

Meanwhile, Boehner and Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sank their teeth into Obama’s assertion of executive privilege. They argued that executive privilege only encompasses the president’s communications with close aides in the White House and could not extend to Justice Department officials.

Boehner and Issa said Obama either knew about Fast or Furious or is making a deliberate attempt to thwart congressional oversight.

According to court findings on executive privilege, the umbrella assertion has several different components, some of which apply strictly to the White House and its rights to private internal communications, while others protect deliberative documents from federal agencies.

Thursday’s contempt vote might well be overshadowed by the Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama’s healthcare law, and civil rights leaders on Tuesday accused Republicans of using the occasion to avoid public outrage at placing the country’s first black attorney general in contempt of Congress.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking with other activists at the National Press Club, highlighted the racial implications of the Republican-led contempt measure and said it would have dire consequences for Holder’s work to protect minority and voting rights.

“This attorney general has fought for voter rights, civil rights, women’s rights and immigration rights, and it is our firm belief that that is why he’s being targeted with this type of humiliation, to try and put a cloud over his head while we fight these voting-rights efforts, while we fight these voter-suppression efforts,” Sharpton said.

“If they can slow him down, it slows down the enforcement of civil rights in this country.”

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