An extraordinary vote by a House committee on Wednesday found Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress in a drama-dripping showdown that now includes a presidential assertion of executive privilege.
Voting 23-17 on a straight party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the citation against Holder, just hours after the Obama administration claimed executive privilege over documents sought by the committee, effectively shielding them.
The committee's action now goes to the full House, where Republicans enjoy a comfortable majority. The citation is the first-ever for a U.S. Attorney General, although other executive branch officials have been cited for contempt of Congress - most recently in 2008, when Bush administration officials Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten were cited.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the citation would not need Senate approval. It would be forwarded to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for investigation and considered as a potential misdemeanor that could include jail time of up to a year, Grassley said.
Holder has been under fire over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' "Fast and Furious" program, a botched gun-trafficking investigation.
Under the operation, federal agents allowed illegal guns sales to proceed in the hopes of tracking arms shipments to Mexican drug cartels. However, federal agents lost track of a large number of the weapons included in the operation and some were subsequently tied to the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
The House panel has been pressing Holder for months for access to the documents about the program, but Holder has said he is legally unable to provide such access because of ongoing investigations.
Republicans complain Holder is stonewalling Congress, providing only about 7,000 pages out of a total of up to 140,000. Democrats say the GOP is only playing election-year politics and has no real interest in resolving the standoff. They also claim that the Bush administration made similar claims of executive privilege to shield documents from congressional oversight.
Democrats on the House committee on Wednesday attempted unsuccessfully to halt the contempt vote until similar programs under Republicans were sufficiently investigated.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said Holder has offered to brief the committee on the documents that are being withheld and to provide descriptions of them. Cummings also said Holder is trying to protect the department's traditions, not himself personally.
"I don't think he's trying to hide a damn thing," Cummings said.
Holder himself did not appear at Wednesday's hearing, but in a heated meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he rejected Republican calls for him to resign, noting that he had investigated and ended tactics used in the "Fast and Furious" program that actually began under the Bush administration.
The Obama administration notified the committee shortly before it convened Wednesday morning that it is shielding the Justice Document documents from the Republican-ruled panel.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., shortly before the committee's morning meeting to assert the claim.
"We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee's concerns and to accommodate the committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious," Cole wrote.
He added, "Although we are deeply disappointed that the committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues."
Holder met Tuesday night with Issa and Grassley in a last-ditch attempt to avoid Wednesday's vote. A livid Grassley told reporters Wednesday morning that Holder came to the meeting empty-handed and merely offered to brief congressman about the documents in exchange for the citation vote being canceled.
Grassley said Obama's assertion of executive privilege "is itself evidence of the attorney general's contempt of the congressional oversight process."
"Never once has the Justice Department even suggested that the documents would be subject to executive privilege," Grassley said. "This is gamesmanship. If this were a serious claim, they would have and should have raised it last night."
by RTT Staff Writer
For comments and feedback: email@example.com