By LARRY MARGASAK, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- Barring a last-minute deal, House Republicans plan historic votes Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in civil and criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents related to a bungled gun-tracking operation.
A sitting attorney general never has been held in contempt and Republicans picked an odd day to set a precedent. They scheduled the votes the same day the Supreme Court was deciding the legality of President Barack Obama's health care law.
Passage of the contempt resolutions was not in doubt. Republicans control the House, and are likely to pick up Democrats who support the National Rifle Association. The NRA said it's keeping score on how members vote, partly because the gun owners' group believes the Obama administration wanted to use the program – called Operation Fast and Furious – to make the case for more gun control.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving House member and normally an NRA supporter, said Wednesday he would not back the contempt resolutions but instead wants the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to conduct a more thorough investigation.
The criminal contempt resolution would send the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder. The civil contempt resolution would allow the House to go to court in an effort to force Holder to turn over documents the Oversight Committee wants. In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The House is unlikely to get the documents anytime soon, because Obama has invoked a broad form of executive privilege, which protects from disclosure internal documents from executive branch agencies.
Republicans want to focus on the economy and health care in an election year. They're hoping the diversion of holding the nation's chief law enforcement officer in contempt will not muddle their message.
Democrats have kept up steady criticism, accusing the GOP majority of trying to embarrass the administration and rushing to judgment rather than putting more effort into a compromise that could give Republicans the documents they want.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said a committee report recommending contempt had more than 100 mischaracterizations, omissions and errors. He said the dispute could be settled if House Speaker John Boehner became personally involved in negotiations.
In Operation Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Fast and Furious.
Two of the guns turned up at the scene where border agent Brian Terry was killed in Arizona in a shootout with Mexican bandits.
Ironically, the documents at the heart of the current argument are not directly related to the workings of Operation Fast and Furious. Rather, they are internal Justice Department communications after February 2011, when the Obama administration falsely told Congress that guns were not allowed to "walk" to Mexico. The department has given the Oversight Committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., 7,600 documents on the operation itself.
Fast and Furious had been shut down by the time of the false information, but Issa wants documents showing deliberations during the 10 months it took for the administration to acknowledge the error.
Issa told the House Rules Committee on Wednesday that he had no evidence that Holder personally knew that guns were allowed to "walk." But he has suspected some Justice Department officials were part of a cover-up.
Democrats insisted the administration did nothing wrong, and said Republicans were just playing politics.
"It has all the trappings of a witch hunt," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. "I don't think there's any way we're doing justice to Brian Terry with what we're doing today."
Issa, however, said the documents he wants are essential to learn who in the administration produced a February 2011 letter with false information.
Referring to Justice Department officials, Issa said, "When did they know we were lied to and what did they do about it?"
Issa also said closure was needed for Terry's family.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the public would view the vote as "political theater" and "gamesmanship."
Carney said the Justice Department and the White House on Tuesday had shown House Republicans a representative sample of the documents they were seeking. He said the administration's offer would have provided "unprecedented access" to internal communications about how it responded to congressional inquiries into the Fast and Furious program.