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Contempt vote inflames Fast and Furious debate

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 10:25 PM EDT, Thu June 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Grassley says there are "reams" of documents withheld by the Justice Department
  • The White House denies any cover-up in the Fast and Furious campaign
  • Speaker Boehner says the White House was involved in Fast and Furious decisions
  • Rep. Pelosi says Republicans target Holder as part of voter suppression efforts

Washington (CNN) -- A possible U.S. House vote next week on citing Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress in connection with the botched Fast and Furious gun-running sting evoked bitter political sniping Thursday between Republicans and Democrats.

Despite statements by all parties favoring a deal to avoid what would be an unprecedented contempt citation against a sitting attorney general, the heated rhetoric indicated congressional leaders and Holder remained committed to deeply rooted stances on the politically charged issue.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, defended the House Oversight Committee vote Wednesday to refer the contempt citation to the full House, saying the goal was to uncover the truth about Fast and Furious, including what he called certain White House involvement.

"The House will vote next week on a contempt measure unless these documents are released," Boehner said.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney called the Republican investigation a "politically motivated, taxpayer funded, election year fishing expedition."

"It is this approach, I think, that explains at least in part why this Congress has the lowest public approval ratings of any in memory, if not history," Carney said.

Holder, meanwhile, said his offer still stands to turn over some of the documents sought by House Republicans.

"The proposal that we have made is still there," Holder told reporters in Denmark, where he was meeting with European officials. "The House, I think, has to consider now what the leadership ... will do and so we'll see how it works out."

Wednesday's committee vote on the contempt measure was on strict party lines -- with 23 Republicans in favor and 17 Democrats opposing.

It ended an extraordinary daylong hearing that took place after President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over some of the documents sought by the panel investigating Fast and Furious. The White House move means the Justice Department can withhold specified materials.

What happens next in Holder contempt flap?

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, claimed Republicans are targeting Holder because he is fighting their efforts to suppress voter turnout in November.

"It is no coincidence that the attorney general of the United States is the person responsible for making sure that voter suppression does not happen in our country, that issues that relate to the civil liberties of the American people are upheld," Pelosi told reporters. "These very same people holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote."

Meanwhile, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association implied on CNN that Fast and Furious was part of a government effort to justify tougher gun control laws.

"I believe what this is about and why they won't release these papers is what Fast and Furious was about was a political attack on the Second Amendment of the United States, to heck with some botched sting operation," Wayne LaPierre said. "... I believe these papers will show that they were doing everything to attack the Second Amendment and the gun and hunting states are going to decide this election, and this administration cannot afford that out before the election."

On Wednesday, the chairman of the House panel, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, refused to put off consideration of the measure, saying the White House assertion of executive privilege "falls short" of any reason to delay the hearing.

However, Issa said after the hearing that he believed a settlement to avoid an unprecedented contempt vote in the House would be "in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious."

What do you think of the controversy?

In Copenhagen on Thursday, Holder repeated earlier criticism of the House panel's vote, calling it "unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented."

His offer to Issa, in a meeting Tuesday evening, "would have allowed for the resolution of that matter, consistent with the way in which these have been resolved in the past through negotiation," Holder said. "I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way."

Holder has said his proposal included turning over some documents and briefing Issa's committee on them, while also providing an inventory of what requested materials were provided or withheld.

He also sought an assurance from Issa that the move would satisfy the subpoenas from the committee. Issa, however, complained that Holder's offer set unreasonable conditions.

Boehner said Thursday that Republicans rejected that "we should accept some documents of his choosing, and as a result of his turning over some documents of his choosing, that we would never ever pursue contempt."

However, the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said, "This is a situation where an attorney general has cooperated to the nth degree, and the only thing he asked for is that we come to some type of conclusion with regard to this contempt situation."

Wednesday's developments further heightened the drama of a high-profile showdown between Issa and Holder over the Fast and Furious program that dates back to subpoenas issued by the House committee last year.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapon purchases by Mexican drug cartels. However, it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms that the agency had allowed straw buyers to carry across the border, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

Investigation began with agent's death

Issa's committee is seeking documents that show why the Justice Department decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.

The subpoenas issued last year originally cited a broad array of documents, including wiretap requests and other materials involving confidential sources that Holder argued he was prevented by law from supplying. Issa narrowed the request in negotiations with Holder in recent weeks to focus on documents pertaining to decision-making on withdrawing the February 2011 letter.

However, Holder refuses to turn over materials containing internal deliberations, and he asked Obama to assert executive privilege over such documents before Wednesday's committee meeting.

Boehner said Obama's assertion of executive privilege proved White House involvement and indicated a cover-up, which Carney later rejected.

"The issue here is about after-the-fact internal documents that have to do with the executive branch's ability to operate appropriately and independently in response to congressional investigations and media inquiries," Carney said.

He noted Holder had ended Fast and Furious when he learned about it, and ordered an inspector general to investigate it. The inspector general's report has yet to be completed.

"Every piece of documentation that relates to the operation itself, if (the Republican) interest is in the operation, how it came about, its origination, how it was approved, why such a flawed tactic was employed -- that has been provided to congressional investigators," Carney said.

The ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, called Carney's statement "hogwash."

"Through my investigation, I know there are reams of documents related to 'the operation itself' that the Justice Department refused to turn over to Congress," Grassley wrote in a statement.

See letter to Issa from deputy attorney general (.PDF)

Cummings said Republicans were being extreme with their contempt measure.

"You have, once again, the far right of this party pushing and pushing," he added, leaving Obama with no option but to assert his executive privilege. " ... These were deliberative documents that all attorney generals have held close and not released. This attorney general released about 1,000 of those documents voluntarily, and Mr. Issa wanted more and more."

Grassley said Obama's assertion of executive privilege raises questions, but "we know of no presidential involvement" in Fast and Furious.

What he wants, Grassley said, is to get to the bottom of who was behind the sting.

"I've only been trying to find out who at the highest level of government ... gave approval for this, so we can get them fired," he said.

At Wednesday's hearing, Democrats noted that a similar program called Operation Wide Receiver was started during the Bush administration. They complained that Issa prevented the panel's investigation from fully examining any possible connection between Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious.

Republicans repeatedly invoked the name of the slain border agent in demanding that Holder turn over all documents sought by the panel.

"At the heart of the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious are disastrous consequences: a murdered Border Patrol Agent, his grieving family seeking answers, countless deaths in Mexico, and the souring effect on our relationship with Mexico," Issa said in a statement. "Congress has not just a right but an obligation to do all that it can to uncover exactly what happened and ensure that it never occurs again."

Holder rejects resignation call at heated Senate hearing

Terry's family issued a statement Wednesday that called for all of the documents sought by the committee to be turned over.

"Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious," the statement said.

Asked about the Terry family's statement Thursday, Carney recited the steps Holder took to end Fast and Furious and to cooperate with the investigation of the operation and said the inspector general has "full access to all documents" sought by Republicans.

"That is separate from an attempt by Republican members of Congress to try to score political points," he said.

Grassley said any accusation of political motivation is "baseless," and he listed his attempts during the Bush administration to subpoena records or hold officials in contempt.

If the House finds Holder in contempt, it is unlikely he will be prosecuted for criminal contempt, according to Alan Morrison, associate dean at George Washington University Law School.

"It would look like terrible overreaching to go for criminal contempt," Morrison said. The charge carries a penalty of $1,000 and up to one year in prison.

Instead, Morrison said, it is more likely the House would pursue civil prosecution in federal court.

CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said that while Holder may be embarrassed, he won't ultimately be found in contempt.

"This is going to be just another political dispute," Toobin told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "If people remember at all, they'll remember 23 Republicans were for it, 17 Democrats were against it."

Wednesday's House committee vote came more than six hours after notice that Obama had asserted executive privilege.

On the border: Guns, drugs -- and a betrayal of trust

In a letter to Obama seeking that action, Holder said the documents involved related to the Justice Department's "response to congressional oversight and related media inquiries," and that release of internal executive branch documents would have "significant, damaging consequences."

Holder also said releasing the documents would "inhibit the candor of executive branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the ability of the executive branch to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight."

Holder said he offered to turn over some of the documents sought by Issa when they met Tuesday in a final effort to resolve the dispute before Wednesday's hearing. Issa, however, said Holder put unreasonable conditions on his offer.

In a letter to Issa after Tuesday's meeting, Deputy Attorney General James Cole reiterated Holder's position that the documents would show Holder had nothing to hide about his role in Fast and Furious.

Cole noted that the lone point of dispute was whether the February 4, 2011, letter was part of a broader effort to obstruct a congressional investigation. "The answer to that question is an emphatic 'no,' and we have offered the committee the opportunity to satisfy itself that that is so," Cole wrote.

CNN's Terry Frieden, Deirdre Walsh, Ted Barrett , Allison Brennan and Phil Gast contributed to this report.

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