The U.S. House plans to proceed with a vote on whether Attorney General Eric Holder should be cited for contempt of Congress, the first proceeding of its kind against a Cabinet member.
The contempt vote will be held tomorrow concerning documents that Holder declined to provide to Congress related to the Fast and Furious federal gun operation, said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. President Barack Obama has asserted executive privilege over the documents and declined to turn them over.
“We’d really rather not be there,” Boehner told reporters today in Washington. The White House hasn’t cooperated with the House Republicans’ requests “to get to the bottom of a very serious issue,” Boehner said.
The contempt vote would escalate a standoff that began last year between the administration and Republican lawmakers over Fast and Furious, which allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link the weapons to Mexican drug cartels. The vote would occur the same day the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional challenge to the president’s health-care overhaul.
The National Rifle Association told House members in a June 20 letter it would consider the Holder contempt vote in evaluations of candidates for office. The group said that the Obama administration tried to use Fast and Furious “to advance its gun-control agenda.”
Democrats, citing the National Rifle Association’s support of the contempt motion, accused Republicans of trying to divert the public’s attention from the need for tougher firearms trafficking laws to stem gun smuggling into Mexico.
Republicans want “political blood” so “instead of going after guns, the Congress is going after the attorney general,” Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York told reporters at a news conference.
If lawmakers hold the attorney general in contempt, the matter would go to the U.S. attorney in Washington to determine whether criminal prosecution is warranted. House leaders also may seek authority to file a lawsuit to obtain a court order directing Holder to comply with the committee’s subpoena.
Both sides remained at an impasse after a meeting yesterday among White House and Justice Department officials and representatives of Boehner and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel voted along party lines last week to approve the contempt citation.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and other administration officials showed congressional staffers a sampling of fewer than 30 pages from material Holder had offered to turn over to avert a contempt vote, said a House Republican aide, who asked for anonymity and wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter.
The officials told congressional staffers that Holder was prepared to turn over an unspecified compilation of hundreds of documents if the committee first agreed to drop the contempt proceedings, the aide said. Congressional staffers rejected the offer, first made on June 19 when Holder met with Darrell Issa of California, who is chairman of the oversight panel, and Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat, the aide said.
“This was a good-faith effort to resolve this while still protecting the institutional prerogatives of the executive branch, often championed by these same Republicans criticizing us right now,” Eric Shultz, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail statement. “Unfortunately, Republicans have opted for political theater rather than conduct legitimate Congressional oversight.”
No follow-up meeting was scheduled, the aide said. Still, additional discussions are possible if the administration seeks them, the aide said.
Executive privilege is a principle that says the executive branch can’t be required by Congress to disclose confidential communications because their release would chill the candid advice provided by government officials or White House advisers.
The House is seeking documents describing internal Justice Department discussions about a February 2011 letter to lawmakers on Fast and Furious that Holder later said mistakenly contained incorrect information. The documents sought by the panel cover the 10-month period between the initial letter and a subsequent one the Justice Department sent to correct the erroneous statements.
The Justice Department says it has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case. During a Rules Committee hearing, Issa said that the Justice Department provided “what shows their side of the story.”
Cummings retorted that lawmakers “should be able as reasonable people to get this resolved” because the contempt citation against Holder would be “a stain on us as an institution.”
In the operation, the U.S. lost track of guns that turned up at crime scenes in Mexico. Holder has said that when he learned about Fast and Furious, he halted use of the tactics and asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.
No Cabinet member has ever been held in contempt by either chamber of Congress, said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.