Rep. Darrell Issa pressed ahead with a committee vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, despite an 11th-hour move by President Obama to exert executive privilege over the Fast and Furious documents at the heart of the dispute.
The announcement touched off a caustic debate on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that lasted into the afternoon, as Democrats accused Issa of prosecuting a “political witch hunt” and Republicans stepped up their criticism of Holder’s “stonewalling” over the Fast and Furious probe. Even for Washington, the tone at the hearing was decidedly bitter and accusatory.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was first informed of the president’s decision to exert executive privilege in a letter Wednesday morning, shortly before the contempt vote was scheduled.
Issa said committee staff are evaluating the letter but described the move as too little, too late as he and other GOP lawmakers questioned the basis for the assertion.
“This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said.
The chairman of the committee called a recess early Wednesday afternoon, with a vote on the contempt resolution presumably still on the table for later in the day. The recess capped an intense debate in which virtually every lawmaker on the committee weighed in.
Democrats roundly voiced disappointment with the proceedings, describing them as politically motivated and avoidable. They pleaded with Issa to seriously consider Obama’s executive privilege claim — the first Obama has asserted — and some said Holder was being punished for withholding internal documents he shouldn’t be turning over anyway.
Republicans praised Issa for pressing ahead, describing the vote as entirely unavoidable considering the department’s alleged refusal to cooperate. They frequently invoked the name of Brian Terry — Fast and Furious-linked guns were found at the murder scene of the Border Patrol agent. And Issa indicated he was waiting for a more detailed explanation from the White House, and a letter from Obama himself, before even considering changing course based on the executive privilege claim.
Issa also accused the Justice Department of trying to compel the committee to close its investigation in exchange for documents it hasn’t yet seen. “I can’t accept that deal. No other committee chairman would,” he said.
But Issa’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., fired back that Holder never made such a demand — a Justice official also refuted Issa’s claim — and said the attorney general had come to the committee in “good faith” to try and work out an agreement.
Cummings said the upcoming contempt vote has “diminished” the prestige of the panel. “For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” he said, addressing Issa. “Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way. It really didn’t.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., added that she was “horrified” by the panel’s looming vote, calling it a “political witch hunt” and accusing Republicans of “overruling” the president.
If the vote proceeds, Republicans have more than enough votes on committee to pass the contempt resolution. However, Holder would not be considered held in contempt of Congress unless and until the full House approves the measure.
The move by Holder and Obama to lock down some requested documents only complicates the fight over the botched anti-gunrunning operation between the legislative and executive branches.
After Holder made the request to Obama via letter on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Issa, R-Calif., on Wednesday informing him that the president has granted the request.