Attorney General Eric Holder said during Senate testimony Tuesday that he is willing to compromise with Republican leaders over a congressional probe into a botched gun-trafficking investigation in order to avoid a threatened contempt charge.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had said Monday that his panel will vote next week on whether to cite Holder with contempt of Congress over the Justice Department's failure to hand over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement Monday afternoon endorsing the vote for contempt if further cooperation from Holder was not forthcoming. "The Justice Department is out of excuses," Boehner said.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning, Holder said he believed that a deal over the documents could be reached.
"I myself am offering to sit down with the speaker, the chairman, whoever, to try to work out a way through this in an attempt to avoid a constitutional crisis," Holder said. "We can come up with ways, creative ways perhaps, in which we can make this material available. I've got to have a willing partner. I've extended my hand, and I'm waiting to hear back."
The threatened contempt vote ratchets up the stakes in an already heated political battle over Operation Fast and Furious, an Arizona gun-running probe that erupted into controversy after government whistleblowers revealed in early 2011 that investigators overseeing the case allowed hundreds of guns to "walk," or fall into the hands of drug gangs. The controversial tactics, now banned, were an attempt to identify and dismantle criminal syndicates responsible for large-scale arms trafficking in the Southwest.
Under an 1857 law, obstructing Congress is a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. A vote in favor of contempt by the oversight committee would send the matter before the full House, where a simple majority would be needed to pass the measure -- assuming a deal is not worked out first. It would then fall to the Justice Department to prosecute a criminal case against its own chief, an unprecedented event.
Issa said in a statement that a contempt citation against the attorney general was justified because of Holder's failure to turn over "critical documents" regarding internal Justice Department deliberations over Fast and Furious. "The Justice Department's actions have obstructed the investigation," Issa said.
In an email, Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, called the scheduled contempt deliberations "unfortunate and unwarranted" and said the department was working with Issa's committee to reach a resolution on the requests for documents.
"From the beginning, Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the Attorney General and others," Schmaler said. "The committee has ignored the fundamental -- and undeniable -- facts that this Attorney General put a stop to the misguided tactics, called for an investigation and instituted reforms to prevent this from happening again."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the Justice Department had provided a "substantial level of cooperation" in the oversight panel's Fast and Furious probe and that the department's inspector general was independently investigating the handling of the case.
"The president has absolute confidence in the attorney general," Carney said.
Issa has subpoenaed internal Justice Department deliberations over the fallout from Fast and Furious, which was run by the Phoenix branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona. Guns linked to Fast and Furious have been found at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico and were tied to the death of a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry. In a letter to a Republican senator in early 2011, the Justice Department initially denied that investigators had allowed "gun-walking."
The department later acknowledged that letter was inaccurate and retracted it. But top Justice officials continue to maintain they were unaware that Arizona investigators were using the controversial tactics before the probe was shut down.
In early June, however, Issa announced that a group of whistleblowers had given him Fast and Furious wiretap applications, which are sealed by federal court order and part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The wiretap applications showed that "a number of key individuals" at the Justice Department were aware of the gun-walking tactics, Issa said during a committee hearing last week.
Holder, when questioned by Issa, denied the allegation. "I disagree with the conclusion that you just reached," he said.
The attorney general said he could not discuss the wiretap applications without breaking the law, but he said Issa had misinterpreted their contents.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, who was given access to the wiretap applications by Issa, has taken a similar position. In a June 5 letter to Issa, Cummings said the chairman's description of the applications omitted information "that completely undermines your conclusions and distorts your representations."
On Tuesday, Cummings urged Issa to meet with Deputy Attorney General James Cole to negotiate a resolution to the impasse over the Fast and Furious documents. In a letter to Issa on Monday, Cole had said that his offers to meet had been rebuffed. "I continue to believe that such a meeting could be productive," he wrote.
Other Democrats slammed Issa for focusing exclusively on the Fast and Furious investigation while doing little to address the ongoing trafficking of huge numbers of guns from the United States into Mexico, which fuels record levels of drug violence. In late April, the ATF announced that Mexican authorities in the previous five years had recovered nearly 70,000 guns that originated in the United States.
In a statement Monday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who serves on the House Oversight Committee, criticized the decision to hold the contempt hearing as part of an "ongoing fishing expedition for whatever can be found, with election-year politics in mind."
"Yet, the gun trafficking that led to the killing of the border patrol agent by Mexican cartel thugs goes without so much as a hearing," she said.
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, signaled on Monday their continued support for Issa's aggressive efforts.
"Congress has given Attorney General Holder more than enough time to fully cooperate with its investigation," Boehner said, adding, "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."
Contempt-of-Congress charges against high-ranking executive branch officials are rare. The same committee charged Attorney General Janet Reno with contempt over the Justice Department's response to a House investigation of campaign finance violations in 1998, but those charges were not endorsed by the full House.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.