In House, Contempt Comes Into Focus

Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:00pm

With only hours to go before a House vote on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, lawmakers warred over the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking probe with dueling press conferences, combative Rules Committee testimony and public statements of outrage.

But the debate, which came sharply along party lines, appeared to make as much progress as the stalemate between the Justice Department and House GOP leaders behind the scenes.

Staffers to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) met with advisers to President Barack Obama at the White House late Tuesday but failed to bridge the impasse over documents to be released to the committee.

And neither side expected that to change. The likely outcome is contempt, followed by a lengthy court battle and settlement negotiations removed from the heat of the vote.

Though Congress has the legal authority to arrest Holder if he is held in contempt, that power has been long dormant, and Republicans confirmed it would not be used now.

Still, the contempt vote is likely to make for awkwardness if Holder were to testify again before House committees.

“The House is going to act. Once we do, the ball will be in the president’s court,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

The main lingering question heading into the vote is how many moderate Democrats will defect to join Republicans in holding their own party’s attorney general in contempt.

Democrats were racing to stem the bleeding after the National Rifle Association announced it is scoring the contempt vote, ratcheting pressure on Democrats in marginal districts who count on its support to bolster their appeal to voters for whom the Second Amendment is paramount.

Thirty-one Democrats, including Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.), signed a letter from June 2011 urging the administration to cooperate with the Fast and Furious probe.

“I’m trying to figure out who’s lying. Is this a witch hunt? Or is there something legitimately there?” Schrader said this week.

Congressional Black Caucus members are planning on walking out of the vote in protest and gathering on the Capitol Steps. In a “Dear Colleague” circulated by the CBC on Wednesday evening, the caucus said: “Instead of focusing on job creation and other critical issues before this Congress, we have been asked to engage in a political stunt on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Our constituents elected us to do real work, not to engage in meaningless partisan activity.”

For months, some Republicans had warned against a racial backlash if the GOP was seen as unfairly targeting the first black attorney general, who is serving under the first black president. The contempt movement has taken on a life of its own in the past two weeks, but the race issue has not gone away.

As the issue has heated up, many have asked themselves the same question  and found the complexities of the controversy difficult to navigate.

For instance, in a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers appeared tempered from their normal partisan snarl by a lack of familiarity with the subject matter, with aides whispering in their bosses’ ears and flashing BlackBerry screens to them.

Issa dove into intricate detail about his inquiry, parrying Democratic retorts, although Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform panel, kept him on his toes.

In Fast and Furious, agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed assault guns bought by straw purchasers to “walk,” which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels.

Even while lambasting Republicans, Democrats frequently stated that they’re not defending the operation or the rescinded letter to Congress.

At a press conference with Democratic Members and several local and state law enforcement officers, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called Fast and Furious “deeply disturbing” and the idea of investigating it entirely appropriate.

But Schiff said he was “disgusted and disappointed” by the Republicans’ actual investigation.

Offering a minority opinion, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) dubbed the whole to-do “Operation Vast and Spurious” and said there’s “nothing there.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said the controversy shows how important new gun control laws are. “There’s been a deliberate attempt to suppress a conversation about gun control and the need for gun control,” he said.

Throughout the day, key Democrats registered their intentions to vote against contempt, providing momentum as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and White House officials intervened to keep the number of defectors down.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the Oversight panel and a Blue Dog, said, “In my opinion, the House is rushing to judgment on this important issue.”

Schrader cited Cooper’s opinion as influential, saying it “weighs heavily” in his mind.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and a formidable champion of Congress’ oversight power when he was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a “Dear Colleague” letter, “I am offended by the way the Majority has handled this investigation.”

Schiff said the NRA’s move to score the vote could influence as many as two dozen Democrats.

Schrader, who noted that he has a concealed weapons permit, said: “I understand the NRA’s concern. Holder’s not been a friend of the Second Amendment.

“But I don’t agree with everybody all the time.”