By Jonathon Strong
Faced with an initially lukewarm reception from top GOP leaders, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is looking to build support for a draft contempt of Congress resolution for Attorney General Eric Holder regarding Issa's investigation of the "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling operation.
Issa has dispatched his lieutenants on the Oversight panel to lobby fellow
Republicans on the issue and is working to garner support from a group of about 30 Democrats as well.
The California Republican is pushing the resolution because of what he says is a refusal by Holder to produce documents about Fast and Furious.
Speaker John Boehner expressed support for the effort last week but stopped short of endorsing the contempt resolution, saying, "All options are on the table."
"Chairman Issa and members of his committee are doing a good job," the Ohio Republican said. "I'm supporting their efforts to hold those people in the Justice Department accountable."
Behind the scenes, Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority
Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have expressed reservations about the political impact of holding Holder in contempt.
"With the other issues, the economy and everything else, I think they would like to focus on that. I don't think they're opposed to going ahead with the contempt citation; it's just that if we can get the Justice Department to move without having to move it, they would probably prefer that," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who forged a reputation for aggressive oversight when he chaired Issa's committee during the Clinton administration.
A GOP aide also warned against a racial backlash if Republicans are seen as unfairly targeting the first black attorney general, who is serving under the first black president. "Especially after Trayvon," the aide said, referring to slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
However, there is a strong current of thought within the Conference running in the opposite direction: a belief that Holder and the Justice Department have been allowed to escape accountability.
Burton recently joked about Issa's patience with the Justice Department during the investigation, saying he wouldn't have waited nearly as long to move toward contempt.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the contempt citation was "long overdue," and Conference Secretary John Carter (Texas) released a strong statement backing Issa and unloading on Holder.
Carter, formerly a Texas district court judge, said if a county sheriff refused to produce documents under subpoena, he'd have thrown the sheriff in jail.
Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, told Roll Call that Issa has done an "incredible job" on the Fast and Furious investigation and said he trusts Issa's judgment on the contempt resolution.
"If he believes that contempt is in order, then I have great confidence that that is the case," Price said.
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said, "My belief is, if in fact the Justice Department is not doing what they're supposed to do -- not treating a separate and equal branch of the government the way they should -- then we should proceed with the contempt resolution."
In the Fast and Furious operation, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed assault rifles and other high-powered weapons to "walk," which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels. The operation involved undercover sales of weapons as a way to track illegal gun running, but the ATF has been roundly criticized for having
inadequate protocols for tracking the guns after they were sold.
Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney who oversaw the case, resigned last summer, and several ATF agents have been reassigned.
But Issa and Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is also spearheading a probe, say they are still trying to determine who ultimately authorized the operation.
Almost a year ago, a group of 31 House Democrats wrote to President Barack
Obama requesting that the Justice Department cooperate more fully with the Fast and Furious investigation.
Issa has moved to garner support for the contempt resolution from those Democrats as well.
But in interviews, two lawmakers from the group said they're not ready to hold Holder in contempt.
"I'm for the documents being produced, yes. I'm not ready to go as far as contempt yet, no. Not yet," Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said.
"There's Congressional oversight and then there's politics. Too much of what's going on this year has a lot more, in my opinion, to do with the elections than trying to provide proper transparency and oversight," said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who urged Issa and Holder to "sit down and work it out."
The threat of contempt could also work as leverage in negotiations with the Justice
Department over document production. A Justice official confirmed that Issa and the department had engaged in discussions since the California Republican released the draft contempt resolution but declined to go into specifics.
In its public response to Issa's push for the contempt resolution, Justice Department officials have said Holder is complying with the subpoena and continuing to produce documents.
"The Department strongly disputes the contention that we have failed to cooperate," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a May 3 letter. Cole suggested the two parties negotiate a solution.
Republicans bristle at the response, saying the current documents produced are drops of water in a bathtub. Issa has said the Justice Department has not released any documents in 12 of 22 categories of documents demanded by his committee.