Is it still a fight if only one side is throwing punches?
Although House Republicans announced Monday they were taking a major step toward holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, an escalation in the oversight battle over the “Fast and Furious” operation scandal, Democrats offered a relatively tame response.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that although it was “unfortunate,” he was still “guardedly optimistic” the two parties could reach an accommodation.
A Justice Department spokeswoman called the move “unwarranted” and touted a new letter of support for Holder from the Fraternal Order of Police. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the GOP was playing “politics” with its investigation.
A spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to comment. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement, “I disagree with House Republicans’ decision to not let the process work,” saying Republicans should wait for a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general to be released.
Some veteran Democratic operatives were surprised at the relatively meager pushback to defend Holder.
“The silence is stunning and shocking,” said Lanny Davis, a veteran of oversight wars from the Clinton administration, about the lack of a forceful Democratic response to defend Holder in recent weeks.
Davis, who said he was Holder’s longtime friend, “respectfully” urged Pelosi to defend Holder and for the White House to be “much tougher” on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has led the drumbeat against the attorney general.
In Fast and Furious, agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed assault guns to “walk,” which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels.
The tactic, which was intended to allow agents to track criminal networks by finding the guns at crime scenes, has been roundly condemned after two guns that were part of the operation were found at Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder scene.
After initially denying the tactic was ever used, the Justice Department conceded it was but insisted senior officials were not aware of its use.
Monday morning, Republicans hit Holder with the announcement that Issa’s panel would consider the contempt resolution, as well as statements from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) backing Issa’s move.
“The Justice Department is out of excuses,” Boehner said. “Either the Justice Department turns over the information requested, or Congress will have no choice but to move forward with holding the attorney general in contempt for obstructing an ongoing investigation.”
The backing from Boehner and Cantor is significant because Issa has been lobbying for weeks to move forward on holding Holder in contempt of Congress, while leadership has remained wary.
Issa scheduled consideration of the contempt charge for June 20, which offers plenty of time for negotiations between Republicans and the Justice Department over which documents it could give up.
He also specified a clear demand for which documents could stop the contempt proceedings.
“While the Justice Department can still stop the process of contempt, this will only occur through the delivery of the post-Feb. 4, 2011, documents related to Operation Fast and Furious and whistle-blower accusations subpoenaed by the committee. If the attorney general decides to produce these subpoenaed documents, I am confident we can reach agreement on other materials and render the process of contempt unnecessary,” Issa said.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole responded in a letter to Issa that he was “surprised” because “over the past few weeks our staffs have met twice and had other communications” to resolve the issue.
Cole said Republicans had not responded to an offer he has made to meet with GOP leadership personally to discuss the issue. “You have not responded to those offers. I continue to believe that such a meeting could be productive,” Cole wrote.
During the George W. Bush administration, threats of contempt prompted deal-making on document production several times.
The cautious response from Democrats might indicate they are ready to deal.
Cummings offered the clearest suggestion that a deal could be near, saying he was “guardedly optimistic that a path forward exists that will serve the legitimate interests of the Committee in conducting rigorous oversight, protect the legitimate interests of the Department in its ongoing investigations and prosecutions, and avoid the needless politicization of this very serious issue.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Issa’s move was “unfortunate and unwarranted, particularly given the ongoing discussions we’ve been having with Committee staff regarding a mutually acceptable resolution to their requests for information.”
Meanwhile, Carney said Holder has taken the allegations that a gun-running sting resulted in thousands of guns being lost to criminal elements in Mexico “very seriously” and noted that Holder had asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.
He added that the Justice Department has handed over more than 7,600 pages of documents to the committee and has appeared numerous times before Congress to discuss the scandal.
Carney then referred reporters to comments by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who told The Hill newspaper in March that the investigation is, in part, “politics.”
King’s comments appeared in a story about House GOP leadership’s reluctance to pursue the contempt citation against Holder. King reportedly said, “I think leadership doesn’t want to be seen as using the gavels here for political purposes. I think there’s a bit of an aversion to that. Me? I have no reservations about that. This is politics.”