A bitterly divided House committee voted along party lines, 23 to 17, to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to produce thousands of documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-walking program under the Department of Justice that ultimately led to the death of an American Border Patrol agent.
The vote is the latest move in the battle between Holder and Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which issued a subpoena to Holder in 2011 to turn over all internal Justice Department documents related to the Fast and Furious program. Although Holder has turned over more than 7,000 documents, he has withheld thousands more that the committee says it still wants.
Minutes before the contempt hearing began, the White House took the dramatic step of asserting executive privilege over the remaining documents through a letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole to the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa.
“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 to Issa. “The Department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues."
Although Issa briefly delayed the hearing Wednesday morning, he convened the committee 20 minutes later and said the White House’s letter would not stop the contempt vote.
“The untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said, adding that he and the committee staff were still evaluating the legality of the White House’s executive privilege assertion.
Holder met with Issa on Tuesday afternoon in a last-minute attempt to avoid Wednesday's contempt vote, but after 20 minutes, both sides left the meeting with no progress to report.
“I think we are involved more in political gamesmanship than in getting them the information they say they want,” Holder told reporters Tuesday night as he left the meeting.
Also on Tuesday, Holder formally asked President Obama to assert executive privilege in the case, explaining that the documents are related to internal White House deliberations about how to respond to congressional and media inquiries about Fast and Furious, not about the operation itself.
News of the White House’s move to assert executive privilege Wednesday morning quickly escalated the standoff between Holder and Republicans and left Republicans asking what the president has to hide.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the White House move raised “monumental questions.” Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, a committee Republican who voted to hold Holder in contempt, said, “The lack of transparency with respect to a dead border-patrol agent is sickening, and this morning’s assertion of executive privilege to maintain the veil of secrecy is even more sickening.”
Republicans on the committee accused Holder and Obama of trying to cover up the events that led up to the death of the border-patrol agent, Brian Terry, and said they had no trust in Holder’s continuing assertions that he wants to work with the committee on its investigation.
If they wanted to turn over the documents, they would have done that by now,” said Rep. Connie Mack. “Instead, you have a Justice Department that wants to withhold the information.”
But Democrats uniformly stood by Holder and the administration. “I think this is a mistake, a major mistake,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the former chairman of the committee. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen on this committee.”
Now that the committee has voted, the contempt citation goes to the full House for a vote, where it would likely pass on Republican votes if House Speaker John Boehner brought it up for a vote. Although Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, was held in contempt by a House committee, no U.S. attorney general has ever been held in contempt by the full House.