House oversight committee schedules contempt vote for Holder

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a vote for next week to consider holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the controversial Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a 64-page memo in early May outlining the case for holding the attorney general in contempt. The chairman based his argument around Holder's failure to respond to an October 2011 subpoena for internal Justice Department documents on the operation.

The committee's vote for contempt is scheduled for June 20.

"The Obama administration has not asserted Executive Privilege or any other valid privilege over these materials, and it is unacceptable that the Department of Justice refuses to produce them," Issa said in a statement Monday, accusing Holder of having "failed to meet his legal obligations."

He said the Justice Department has "obstructed the investigation," adding that the department "can still stop the process of contempt" by delivering key documents.

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In a separate statement, House Speaker John Boehner said the department is "out of excuses."

The Justice Department maintains that it has cooperated with the investigation and provided thousands of documents. Holder has testified before the committee at least eight times about Fast and Furious, most recently on Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called the scheduled vote "unfortunate and unwarranted." She said there had been "ongoing discussions" with committee staff about a "mutually acceptable resolution" to their information requests.

"From the beginning, Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the attorney general and others, and this latest move fits within that tired political playbook that has so many Americans disillusioned with Washington. The Committee has ignored the fundamental -- and undeniable -- facts that this attorney general put a stop to the misguided tactics, called for an investigation of this flawed operation and instituted reforms to prevent this from happening again," she said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday also noted Justice has provided 7,600 pages of documents to date and provided testimony during "hours and hours" of congressional hearings. He suggested the vote next week is political.

At Thursday's hearing, Issa grilled Holder in a particularly heated exchange where he accused the attorney general of failing to answer questions about the investigation.

"Have you and your attorneys produced internally the materials responsive to the subpoenas?" Issa asked.

"We believe that we have responded to the subpoenas," Holder began.

"No. Mr. Attorney General, you're not a good witness. A good witness answers the question asked," Issa snapped.

The Fast and Furious program oversaw sales of nearly 2,000 firearms to suspected Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to trace gun trafficking. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recovered only 567 of the guns. Most controversially, many of the guns were found at violent crime scenes, including at the shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

The Republican leadership initially hedged on fully supporting Issa's case due to concerns that charging the attorney general in contempt in an election year could backfire. At the same time, they tried to allay concerns from conservatives -- particularly freshmen -- who called for Holder's resignation.

Six House Republican freshmen wrote to the leadership on May 18 to push for a contempt of Congress resolution against Holder. Hours later, Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued a letter to Holder demanding that he fully cooperate with the Oversight Committee investigation.

They also warned that "if necessary, the House will act to fulfill our constitutional obligations in the coming weeks."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday that the latest announcement is "straightforward and necessary."

"Contempt is the only tool Congress has to enforce a subpoena," he said.

But Issa's Democratic counterpart on the House oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the committee's action "unfortunate."

"I am guardedly optimistic that a path forward exists that will serve the legitimate interests of the Committee in conducting rigorous oversight, protect the legitimate interests of the Department in its ongoing investigations and prosecutions, and avoid the needless politicization of this very serious issue," he said in a statement.

Holder would join only one other attorney general, Janet Reno in 1998, to be held in contempt by the Oversight Committee.

The last time the House voted to find an executive branch official in contempt was in 2008 over the U.S. attorney firings controversy. It passed a resolution against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for failing to provide internal documents. Miers also refused to comply with a subpoena to appear at a hearing. The House Judiciary Committee also found White House adviser Karl Rove in contempt later that year over the same issue.