For the first time in history, a House committee voted Wednesday to hold a U.S. Attorney General in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over Justice Department documents.
Eric Holder, the nation’s first black United States Attorney General, has been under fire for weeks by Republicans who are using Holder as a scapegoat to marginalize President Barack Obama five months before the presidential election.
The vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress was strictly along party lines, with Republicans on the committee outnumbering Democrats 23-17. The decision now goes to the full House for consideration.
Republicans are playing hardball: With polls showing that Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney are neck-in-neck, GOP congressional leaders are trying to cripple Obama by using all the political tactics at their disposal. With the presidential election five months away, Democrats are accusing Republicans of desperate political games with Holder as their pawn.
“This divisive action does not help us fix the problems that led to this operation or previous ones and it does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer,” Holder said in a statement Wednesday.
“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 said.
Obama showed some gumption Wednesday and proved that he’s standing solidly behind Holder by asserting executive privilege for the first time in his administration in order to protect the confidentiality of the documents.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, and the Republican-led committee chairman, has been hounding Holder for 14 months, demanding that he turn over all documents related to the Justice Department’s admittedly flawed “Fast and Furious” gun and drug operation in Arizona.
Several thousand illegally purchased firearms were circulated on both sides of the Southwest border and many guns ended up with Mexican drug cartels.
“The committee has uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice department,” Issa said of his investigation. “That wrongdoing has cost lives on both sides of the border.”
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, (D-MD) ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform, blasted Issa for disrespecting Holder.
"For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard, Cummings said during Wednesday’s proceedings on Capitol Hill. "You accused him of a cover-up for protecting documents that he was prohibited by law from producing."
Cummings defended Holder, saying the attorney general had agreed to provide a multitude of documents.
"It was a fair and reasonable offer, especially in the light of the partisan and highly inflammatory personal attacks you made against him throughout this investigation," said Cummings, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Cummings insisted that Issa "had no interest" in resolving the issue and was trying to use his legislative power to beat up on Holder.
Holder is not backing down – and he still refuses to hand over all the documents that Issa is demanding, saying that his staff has already turned over 8,000 records and has cooperated with Issa for nearly a year and a half.
“Unfortunately, Chairman Issa has rejected all of these efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation,” Holder said. “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.”
Meanwhile, Republicans are well aware that a decision of this magnitude to go after Holder will certainly be a distraction for Obama, who is trying to stay focused on his message about creating jobs for unemployed Americans.
Republicans are hoping that holding the Attorney General in contempt of Congress will tarnish the image of the Obama administration and cause voters to think twice about voting for Obama in November.
"While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the Attorney General reevaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week," the Republican leaders said in a statement. "If, however, Attorney General Holder produces these documents prior to the scheduled vote, we will give the Oversight Committee an opportunity to review in hopes of resolving this issue."
Holder, however, is staying the course and insists that turning over confidential documents to Congress could endanger the lives of law enforcement agents who are investigating drug cases.
“The American people deserve better,” Holder said. “That is why, I will remain focused on, and committed to, the Justice Department’s mission to protect the rights, safety, and best interests of my fellow citizens and to stand by my brave colleagues in law enforcement.”