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House Republican leaders set a vote next week to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress on the recommendation of a panel that condemned President Barack Obama’s last-minute assertion of executive privilege to shield documents from lawmakers.
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced the vote yesterday after the Oversight and Government Reform Committee made Holder the first Cabinet official held in contempt by a congressional panel in 14 years.
The commmittee’s party-line contempt resolution is the latest escalation in a standoff that began last year over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun operation, which allowed illegally purchased firearms from the U.S. to wind up in Mexico.
“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,” Boehner, of Ohio, and Cantor, of Virginia, 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.”
The committee, led by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, is seeking documents describing internal Justice Department discussions about a February 2011 letter to lawmakers that Holder later said mistakenly contained incorrect information.
The Justice Department says it already has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case. In a statement, Holder yesterday called the panel’s action “an election-year tactic intended to distract attention.”
“The action that the committee took was unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented,” Holder said today at a news conference in Copenhagen, where he is meeting with Morten Boedskov, the justice minister of Denmark, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
“We put before the committee a proposal that would have allowed for a resolution of that matter, consistent with the way in which these have been resolved in the past, through negotiation,” Holder said. “The possibility still exists that it can happen in that way.”
The House vote won’t take place before June 26, giving Holder time to deliver the documents sought by Issa’s panel, according to a Republican congressional aide who asked to not be named.
By failing to resolve the dispute with Issa’s committee, Holder may have decided that it would be easier to reach an accommodation with Boehner, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia.
“Holder has made the calculus, let’s see if we can’t find somebody who is more reasonable with whom we can deal” and “who has broader institutional concerns” than “the committee or committee members,” Tobias said in an interview.
A contempt vote also plays into the Democratic narrative of Republican obstructionism. Republicans controlled the House the last time a committee held a Cabinet member in contempt -- during the administration of President Bill Clinton, another Democrat.
In 1998, House Republicans decided against a floor vote on contempt after the oversight panel cited Attorney General Janet Reno for withholding documents related to a campaign finance investigation.
If Boehner starts a contempt fight, voters will blame Congress for taking its focus off jobs, said Representative Robert Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat. If he doesn’t, he risks angering conservatives for “wimping out of confrontation” with Obama, Andrews said.
“The House remains focused on the American people’s top priority: jobs,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “We also have a constitutional responsibility to conduct effective oversight.”
Yesterday marked the first time Obama has invoked executive privilege, according to the White House. Executive privilege is a principle that says the executive branch can’t be forced by the legislative branch to disclose confidential communications when they would harm operations.
Documents responsive to the House panel’s subpoena relate to “sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter yesterday to Issa before the committee vote.
In a letter to the president released by the White House, Holder argued that giving up the documents sought by the panel “would inhibit the candor” of deliberations within the executive branch. He said documents “were generated in the course of the deliberative process” and as a result “the need to maintain their confidentiality is heightened.”
Guns in Fast and Furious ended up “lost” and will turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years, Holder told lawmakers last year.
Two of about 2,000 guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a congressional report.
Holder has said that he didn’t learn of the tactics in the operation until after it was the subject of news reports. Since then, he has banned the use of similar law enforcement methods.
Holder last year told a Senate hearing that he regretted a Feb. 4, 2011, letter the Justice Department sent lawmakers that indicated ATF hadn’t “knowingly allowed” the tactics in the law enforcement operation to be employed. Information in the letter turned out to be inaccurate, he said.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers have called on Holder to resign over his handling of probes into the gun operation and leaks of classified national security information. Republicans have also criticized how the Justice Department under Holder has prosecuted terrorism suspects and challenged state immigration and voting laws.
Republican lawmakers said that Obama’s assertion of executive privilege raised questions about the extent of what he knew about Fast and Furious.
“How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?” Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?”
Then-President George W. Bush asserted executive privilege to block release of documents and testimony by his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, and other top aides. Lawmakers wanted to question them on the administration’s firing in 2006 of nine federal prosecutors. Under a deal later brokered by the Obama administration, the aides gave testimony in private.
Unless the Obama administration hands over the documents, “this could drag out a while,” Issa said of the current tussle.
To contact the reporters on this story: Seth Stern in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; James Rowley in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at firstname.lastname@example.org