An eleventh-hour deal elusive, the House of Representatives was poised to vote Thursday on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer, in contempt of Congress.
Neither the prospect of making Holder the first attorney general in U.S. history to be held in contempt nor negotiations between lawmakers and the Justice Department seemed enough to stave off Thursday's unprecedented vote.
"We're going to proceed," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday. "We've given them ample opportunity to reply."
As the House Rules Committee met Wednesday to decide how the vote would be conducted, House Democrats and Republicans and the White House pointed fingers and traded caustic remarks over how and why the issue has devolved into a high-stakes constitutional showdown between the legislative and executive branches of government. The House is demanding more internal Justice Department documents about its handling of Operation Fast and Furious – a failed gun-tracking effort. The White House has asserted executive privilege to shield the documents, leading to the move to cite Holder in contempt.
Republicans said that they had no choice but to pursue contempt because they're being blocked by Holder's Justice Department from seeking the truth about Fast and Furious, an operation in which federal officials allowed guns to illegally "walk" into Mexico from the United States with the aim of tracking drug cartels. Some of the weapons were used in violent crimes; two were found at the scene where a U.S. border agent was killed.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday called the contempt effort "political theater." He said that the administration has negotiated in good faith with House Republicans who "have made the strategic choice to try to score political points . . . rather than focusing on jobs and the economy."
Congressional Democrats also called the contempt vote part of a partisan election-year witch hunt and an effort to politically cripple an attorney general whose agency is investigating things that many Republicans don't like.
"It's just another sad chapter in our recent institutional decline," Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., an Oversight and Government Reform Committee member, said on the House floor Wednesday. "Do we really want our legacy to be establishing one of the most partisan House of Representatives of all time; so clouded in judgment; so (weighed down) with rancor and partisanship that we're incapable of addressing vital separation of powers conflicts in a serious and fair fashion?"
A vote to hold Holder in contempt likely will be bipartisan. With the politically powerful National Rifle Association calling Thursday's vote a loyalty test, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., acknowledged that he'll have trouble holding Democratic ranks.
"This is an issue of the utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate's evaluations," Chris Cox, the NRA's executive director, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
At least two Democrats – Reps. John Barrow of Georgia and Jim Matheson of Utah – announced that they will vote for contempt.
"While Republicans and Democrats argue over the score of the people's right to know what happened, the attorney general has decided to withhold relevant documents," Barrow said in a statement Wednesday. "The only way to get to the bottom of what happened is for the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents; so that we can work together to ensure this tragedy never happens again."
The NRA says it, too, seeks the truth about Fast and Furious. Noting revelations by CBS News, the NRA says the Obama administration was using Fast and Furious and gun violence in Mexico to justify more gun-control measures in the United States.
"Attorney General Holder has seized on the deadly violence in Mexico to promote more gun control," Cox said. "There is little doubt that the White House used the Fast and Furious to advance its gun control agenda."
So far in the 2011-12 election cycles, the NRA's political arm spent a total of $609,920, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Much of that sum – $452,000 – has gone to support Republicans, with only $7,911 going for Democrats. Much of the pro-Republican money – $346,782 – went to back conservative Richard Mourdock, who won a hotly contested primary last month over veteran incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and chief executive officer, noted that gun owners could be crucial votes in a number of swing states in 2012, such as Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina.