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The swiftness with which House Republican leaders scheduled a floor vote on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress — coming mere minutes after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the contempt citation Wednesday — demonstrated the increasing velocity of the biggest constitutional crisis in years.
House Republicans dismissed President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over “Fast and Furious” documents Wednesday as the Oversight panel approved the contempt report on a party-line vote, 23-17.
Within moments, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) scheduled a floor vote for next week.
The move also underscored an escalating tension on Capitol Hill that is likely to get worse as the Supreme Court is set to issue its ruling on the Affordable Care Act next week and lawmakers face June 30 deadlines on a transportation reauthorization bill and student loan interest rates.
Holder could provide the documents demanded by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.), ending the contempt proceedings,
Boehner and Cantor said.
“While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the Attorney General re-evaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week,” the leaders said.
But more likely is a protracted court battle.
Obama asserted executive privilege on the documents minutes before the hearing on the contempt report began, surprising Issa. It was the first time Obama asserted the privilege. As a Senator, he criticized then-President George W. Bush for utilizing it.
It prompted a swift reaction from Republicans, who accused Obama of Nixonian tactics aimed at covering up what his administration knew and when about the operation that allowed hundreds of guns to be bought by Mexican gangs — two of which were found at the scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder.
“The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “The administration has always insisted that wasn’t the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?”
The White House threw back at the GOP a variation of Boehner’s favorite attack line: Where are the jobs?
“Instead of creating jobs or strengthening the middle class, Congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition,” White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer scolded.
Pfeiffer dismissed gun-walking as “a field-driven tactic that dated back to the previous administration” and credited Holder with ending it.
Pfeiffer did not mention Terry’s murder or the Justice Department’s initial assertions that senior officials were unaware of the tactic. And the White House has not yet addressed Obama’s criticism of Bush’s executive privilege claims. Instead, the administration cited precedent to argue that presidents may assert executive privilege over internal documents at government agencies — not just documents directly related to the White House. Republicans, such as former House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) argued Wednesday that the executive privilege Obama is citing does not apply to wrongdoing.
Buck, meanwhile, said the House is indeed focused on jobs.
“Americans are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ and that’s why today the House is considering the Domestic Energy and Jobs Act. But the fact that the president’s policies have left us with a terrible economy is no excuse for avoiding accountability on this botched operation that led to the murder of a federal agent.”
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign also jumped into the fray.
“President Obama’s pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
But perhaps the most biting statement came from Terry’s parents, Josephine Terry and Kent Terry Sr.
“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,” they said.
At the Oversight panel’s contempt hearing, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) read the family’s statement.
Holder blasted the “unprecedented” action in a statement, saying he and his department have spent countless hours and provided almost 8,000 documents to the committee. He said Issa rejected his efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation.
“Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch,” Holder said. “It’s an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people.”
Holder asked Obama in an eight-page letter to assert executive privilege over the documents. The letter outlines a legal case for asserting privilege in regard to a key category of internal DOJ communications. That period ranges from when the department denied in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley the tactics at the heart of Fast and Furious were ever used to December 2011, when the department rescinded that letter to Grassley.
“The documents at issue fit squarely within the scope of executive privilege,” Holder’s letter to Obama said.
The letter cites opinions from George W. Bush administration lawyers that concern communication between the DOJ and the White House and quotes former Attorney General Michael Mukasey saying, “The doctrine of executive privilege ... encompasses Executive Branch deliberative communications.”
Issa said the last-minute invocation of privilege wasn’t reason to stop the proceedings.
“This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said.
To make his case, Issa read aloud from the book “When Congress Comes Calling,” citing a passage that asserts executive privilege is restricted to communications between the president and his staff.
Democrats on the panel, led by ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), criticized Issa’s investigation and urged the California Republican to at least delay the contempt proceedings in light of the executive privilege assertion.
The contempt vote came after a last-minute meeting in the Capitol between and Issa and Holder failed to bridge the impasse.
Holder said he offered to produce a key category of documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking probe but only if releasing the documents absolved Issa’s demands for a broader set of documents that have been subpoenaed.