WASHINGTON (CNN) — The U.S. House will proceed with a vote Thursday on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents involving the failed Fast and Furious weapons operation, Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday.
“We’re going to proceed,” Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters. “We’ve given them ample opportunity to reply.”
His comment came the day after House Republicans rejected another offer by the White House and Justice Department to turn over some documents sought by congressional investigators.
Administration and justice officials met Tuesday with senior aides to Boehner and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa to try to head off the House vote, which could bring the unprecedented contempt citation of a sitting attorney general.
A senior House Republican aide said the offer to let congressional investigators see some of the requested documents in return for dropping the contempt measure was insufficient.
According to a summary provided by a senior administration official and a Justice Department official familiar with the discussions, the Justice Department offered to give Congress access to some of the documents generated between February 4, 2011, when the Justice Department initially told Congress there was no inappropriate activity, and December 2, 2011, when it acknowledged the program was “fundamentally flawed.”
“We reached out and showed them a representative sample of the documents so they could see firsthand the types of communications in contention,” said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama has asserted executive privilege on some documents in the dispute, preventing them from being turned over on grounds they include internal deliberations traditionally protected from outside eyes.
The Justice Department also offered to conduct a briefing, give Congress documents related to whistle-blowers in the case, and work with the committee to respond to any questions it had after reviewing the materials.
In the summary, the Justice Department maintained the offer would give Congress “unprecedented access to deliberative documents.” The administration official said the documents would “dispel any notion of an intent to mislead Congress.”
“This was a good faith effort to try to reach an accommodation while still protecting the institutional prerogatives of the executive branch, often championed by these same Republicans criticizing us right now,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told CNN. “Unfortunately, Republicans have opted for political theater rather than conduct legitimate congressional oversight.”
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee last week recommended citing Holder for contempt for failing to release documents related to the panel’s investigation of Fast and Furious.
Some gun rights advocates, including the NRA, maintain that the program that allowed hundreds of weapons, including assault rifles, to end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels was a way for the Obama administration to press for new gun control laws.
Issa said Sunday he had e-mails showing the administration planned to point to the operation and push for a “weapons ban or greater reporting.”
The top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, pushed back at Issa’s claim Tuesday, telling reporters, “I don’t believe that, and I think it’s very unfortunate that people are coming up with these theories.”
Meanwhile, the number two Democrat in the House signaled Tuesday that some Democrats could join with Republicans to hold Holder in contempt, citing pressure from the National Rifle Association.
When asked in his weekly session with reporters to give an estimate of how many Democrats might defect on the vote, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, replied, “I can’t.”
Hoyer immediately pointed out that the NRA has “weighed in on this issue” and acknowledged “there are some members who will consider the recommendations of the NRA.”
“Whether they think those recommendations are founded or not, I don’t know at this point,” Hoyer added.
Democratic leaders are urging rank-and-file members to stick together and oppose the resolution, according to a senior House Democratic aide.
The vote in the committee last week was on strict party lines, with Republicans supporting a contempt recommendation and Democrats opposing it. It occurred before the gun lobby formally registered its support for the contempt resolution.
Rarely has any pro-gun-rights Democrat representing a rural and Southern district broken with the NRA’s position on key votes, especially in an election year.
The NRA’s executive director, Chris Cox, sent a letter to Issa after the committee vote last week, expressing support for his efforts. In the letter, Cox wrote that “it’s no secret that the NRA does not admire Holder,” adding, “for years we have pointed out his history of anti-Second Amendment advocacy and enforcement actions.”
“The reason we support the contempt resolution is the same reason we first called for Attorney General Holder’s resignation more than a year ago; the Department’s obstruction of congressional oversight of a program that costs lives in support of an anti-gun agenda,” the letter said.
The NRA, which frequently weighs in on congressional races with endorsements and support of a national grassroots network, also put members on notice that anyone who votes against contempt could face consequences in the fall election.
“This is an issue of utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate evaluations,” the organization said.
Hoyer chastised the GOP for moving ahead with the full floor vote on Thursday, calling it “an inevitable conclusion that the rush to judgment, the rush to consideration is again the choosing of confrontation over consensus in the resolution of issues.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that House Republicans have made the dispute a political issue.
Issa’s panel has been seeking documents that show why the Justice Department decided to withdraw as inaccurate the February 2011 letter.
However, Holder has refused to turn over materials containing internal deliberations, and asked Obama to assert executive privilege over such documents last week.
In a letter to Obama on Monday, Issa said the president’s assertion of executive privilege means that he and his most senior advisers were involved in “managing” Fast and Furious and the “fallout from it” or that the president asserted a power he knows is unjustified “for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation.”
“To date, the White House has steadfastly maintained that it has not had any role in advising the (Justice) Department with respect to the congressional investigation. The surprising assertion of executive privilege raised the question of whether that is still the case,” Issa said in his letter.
Schultz responded that Issa’s account “has as much merit as his absurd contention that Operation Fast and Furious was created in order to promote gun control.”
“Our position is consistent with executive branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan’s Department of Justice,” Schultz said. “The courts have routinely considered deliberative process privilege claims and affirmed the right of the executive branch to invoke the privilege even when White House documents are not involved.”
A supporting document provided by Schultz listed five such cases, including an October 1981 assertion by Reagan involving documents describing internal deliberations inside the Department of the Interior and another by Reagan a year later involving internal Environmental Protection Agency files.
The ATF launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapons purchases by Mexican drug cartels.
However, it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms it was tracking in the operation, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
The showdown between Issa and Holder over the Fast and Furious program dates back to subpoenas issued by the House committee last year.
Issa and Republicans contend that Holder and the Justice Department are concealing details of how Operation Fast and Furious was approved and managed.
Democrats argue that Issa and his GOP colleagues are using the issue to try to score political points by discrediting Holder and, by extension, the president in an election year.
A video released Tuesday by Democrats on Issa’s panel showed the chairman making past allegations of White House links to Fast and Furious, juxtaposed with Issa saying Sunday there was no evidence of a White House cover-up.
“Get the facts. Read the report,” the video says in conclusion.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, alleged last week that Republicans were targeting Holder because he is fighting their efforts to suppress voter turnout in November.
Issa, however, said in his letter that the assertion of executive privilege “raises more questions than it answers.”
The letter provided details of a June 19 meeting between Issa and Holder on the eve of the committee’s partisan vote on the contempt measure.
Issa said Holder wanted to “buy peace” on the matter.
“He indicated a willingness to produce the ‘fair compilation’ of post-February 4th documents. He told me that he would provide the ‘fair compilation’ of documents on three conditions: (1) that I permanently cancel the contempt vote; (2) that I agree the department was in full compliance with the committee’s subpoenas, and; (3) that I accept the ‘fair compilation,’ sight unseen,” Issa said in the letter, calling Holder’s conditions “unacceptable.”
“The attorney general’s conditional offer of a ‘fair compilation’ of a subset of documents covered by the subpoena, and your assertion of executive privilege, in no way substitute for the fact that the Justice Department is still grossly deficient in its compliance with the committee’s subpoena,” Issa’s letter said. “By the department’s own admission, it has withheld more than 130,000 pages of responsive documents.”
Issa also stressed the importance of forging a settlement rather than pursuing contempt of Congress proceedings, and asked the White House for answers to questions about the executive privilege assertion.
“To what extent were you or your most senior advisers involved in Operation Fast and Furious and the fallout from it, including the false February 4, 2011 letter provided by the attorney general to the committee?” Issa’s letter said. “Please also identify any communications, meetings, and teleconferences between the White House and the Justice Department between February 4, 2011 and June 18, 2012, the day before the Attorney General requested that you assert executive privilege.”
By Deirdre Walsh. Terry Frieden. and Tom Cohen – CNN
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