WASHINGTON – A House committee voted along party lines to find U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to provide subpoenaed documents in the flawed Fast and Furious gun-tracking case, just hours after President Barack Obama for the first time asserted executive privilege and backed Holder’s refusal to release the material.
The developments Wednesday set up a political standoff going into the November elections and a significant constitutional clash between the White House and Congress that ultimately may not be resolved until after a lengthy journey through the courts.
The legal conflict was quickly subsumed by the intense partisanship that has characterized relations between the Obama White House and the GOP-controlled House.
Republicans asserted that Obama was covering up White House involvement in Fast and Furious, an ATF surveillance operation that lost track of guns that ultimately were used in crimes on both sides of the Mexican border.
Democrats said the Republicans were engaged in a “witch hunt.”
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department had already “substantially complied” with the subpoena.
He said the additional documents requested “pertain to sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions, or were generated by department officials in the course of responding to congressional investigations or media inquiries about this matter that are generally not appropriate for disclosure.”
But Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it had “uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice Department. That wrongdoing has cost lives on both sides of the border.”
If the full House votes next week to hold Holder in contempt, it would be only the fifth time since 1980 that the House has taken such a step against a current or former administration official.
Political analysts said they thought the issue would have only limited impact in the presidential campaign.
“This is the kind of thing that reinforces rather than changes existing views,” said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist. “The people who dislike the president will find his decision obdurate and defensive. The people who like the president will find his decision perfectly well justified. …
“There will be nothing that we can possibly see on the horizon at this point that is going to supplant the economy as the overriding issue in this election,” Ayres said.
Even some Republicans conceded that they needed to keep the focus on the economy in the campaign and not get distracted.
“Do I think that’s going to be the major issue in the campaign or that we should shift focus as that should be our major message? Absolutely not,” Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., told a television interviewer.
All 23 Republicans on the committee voted for finding Holder in contempt, and all 17 Democrats voted against the resolution.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said she was “extremely disgusted” with the committee’s action.
“I am horrified you are going through with this contempt charge,” she said. “This shouldn’t be a witch hunt.”
Holder, in a statement, called the vote “extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary” and said it was designed “to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch.” The attorney general added, “This divisive action does not help us fix the problems” with illegal gun trafficking or protecting the public and law enforcement on the border.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama’s decision to insert himself in the matter “implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed.”
At the White House on Wednesday, communications director Dan Pfeiffer sharply criticized House Republicans for taking up time with Fast and Furious. “Instead of creating jobs or strengthening the middle class, congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition,” he said.
To enforce the contempt holding, the Republicans would normally have to turn to the U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, who works for Holder.
At issue are 1,300 pages of Justice Department documents from February of last year, when the department first claimed no one in Washington was aware of the Fast and Furious tactics, and December, when it later admitted there was some knowledge.
On Tuesday evening, Holder offered to allow committee members to review some of the material because he said it would answer some of their questions. But Issa said Holder also said the committee must first drop its intention to vote for contempt. At that point, their talks broke down.
Fast and Furious was run by Arizona agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It began in fall 2009 and ended a month after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010 south of Tucson, Ariz. The goal of Fast and Furious was to allow illegal gun sales on the border so agents could track the firearms to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Instead, most of the weapons were lost and many turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.