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A House Judiciary Committee face-off between Republicans and Attorney General Eric Holder today devolved into a parliamentary near-meltdown as Democratic lawmakers repeatedly interrupted Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) as he questioned Holder.
“Regular order! Regular order!” Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) shouted over Issa. Watt’s complaint: that Issa was interrupting Holder, preventing him from answering Issa’s questions.
Amid the melee, Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) appeared to lose control of his hearing, and ultimately ceded time to Judiciary ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), who admonished his colleagues for the hostile atmosphere.
The remarks came at a Judiciary Committee hearing where Holder testified broadly about the Justice Department he oversees. But Republicans have been preparing to unload on him over the “Fast and Furious” gun smuggling operation they are investigating.
The context of the conflict is that Republicans led by Issa want to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for what they say is his refusal to produce documents related to the investigation.
Smith began the hearing in a calm demeanor, even if his words were incendiary — charging Holder with showing “disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Several Republican members, including Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), and Dan Lungren (Calif.), proceeded in that fashion, with one of the more antagonistic back-and-forths coming, surprisingly, between liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) over questions of executive power.
But as Issa got into a tense question-and-answer dialogue with Holder, which included several unmet requests by Holder to finish his thoughts, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) suddenly interrupted, demanding that Holder be allowed more time to respond.
Issa continued, at one point admonishing Holder that he is “not a good witness” because he didn’t answer the question asked, and the two discussed six wiretap applications that are the latest point of dispute between the two parties.
Issa has claimed the applications, which are under court seal and have not been seen by the public, include detailed descriptions of the tactics used in Fast and Furious and were approved by senior Justice Department officials.
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, was 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 used, the DOJ conceded it was but insisted senior officials were not aware of its use.
The Justice Department has responded to Issa’s charge by saying the wiretap applications were narrowly reviewed for whether enough evidence was present for probable cause, the legal term of art at issue in obtaining court approval for a wiretap.
In answering Issa’s questions, Holder strongly disputed that the wiretap applications should have tipped off the officials who reviewed them about the tactics used in Fast and Furious.
But the debate devolved into a circus-like atmosphere before it could be completed.
Watt, who had already complained, like Jackson Lee, about how Issa was treating Holder, began shouting “regular order!” repeatedly to indicate that Issa’s time was up.
Smith tried to intervene, saying that Holder would be allowed to answer Issa’s question, but Watt did not relent.
The episode ended with a speech from Conyers urging colleagues against perpetuating the hostile atmosphere.
Issa’s pointed conflict in the hearing with two African-American members comes as Republicans have privately indicated they are sensitive to scrutinizing Holder, the first black attorney general serving under the first black president, because of his race.
Before the hearing, a Justice Department spokeswoman released a series of letters from organizations supporting Holder and urging against a contempt vote.
The list of groups includes civil rights organizations and a group representing black law enforcement officials. The latest such letter came from the heads of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.