Dana Milbank
Opinion writer November 8, 2011

This town needs a good imbroglio.

The Obama presidency has been very good to the political opposition, giving Republicans control of the House and now putting them in a position to take the Senate and White House as well.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

In one area, though, President Obama has so far thwarted Republicans: He has not given them a juicy scandal. There was Solyndra, the solar company that went bust after getting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. There have been some resignations by administration officials because of dubious things in their past, and there has been the odd flap over unpaid taxes.

But so far, the opposition’s best hope for a scandal is “Fast and Furious,” a sting operation that went awry when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms lost track of some 1,400 high-powered weapons it was planning to trace as they made their way from illegal buyers to Mexican drug cartels.

Last year, the body of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry turned up near two Fast and Furious guns.

Without a doubt, the operation was a debacle, and it has led to untold bloodshed and friction with Mexico. The ATF’s acting chief has been reassigned, and subpoenas are flying on Capitol Hill.

But it has not reached the level of a political scandal. Investigators found evidence that an official at the National Security Council, Kevin O’Reilly, communicated with Phoenix ATF official William Newell, but that’s a barrel and trigger shy of a smoking gun. There’s also evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder and others knew about the bungled program earlier than they originally let on, but there’s not yet evidence of any high-level White House involvement. Neither of the two leading Republicans probing the case, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), has called for Holder’s resignation.

The most that can be done for now, then, is to harangue Holder and his colleagues and hope something shakes loose. And so Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), head of the Senate Republicans’ reelection effort, was in a rather furious state of mind Tuesday morning as he questioned Holder before the Judiciary Committee. Cornyn went after the attorney general as if prosecuting him.

“Have you apologized to the family of Brian Terry?”

“Have you even talked to them?”

“Would you like to apologize today for this program that went so wrong, that took the life of a United States law enforcement agent?”

“Are you winging this or do you actually know?”

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) did his best to inoculate Holder, invoking the killing of Osama bin Laden and saying that, when Holder gave Congress bad information, he was simply “not being precise.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tied the failed operation to an earlier “gun-walking” sting, called “Operation Wide Receiver,” done by George W. Bush’s administration. (The Mexicans apparently knew about that one.)

The hearing stretched on, and Republicans grew increasingly indignant about Holder’s refusal to admit much.

Grassley asked about the false statements made to him by the Justice Department. “The letter could have been better crafted,” Holder allowed.

Did the official responsible offer to resign? “No, he has not, and I don’t expect to hear a resignation offer.”

The chairman eventually tried to cut off Grassley.

“You went over one minute and 40” seconds, Grassley protested.

“I did not,” Leahy maintained.

Cornyn displayed a poster showing a timeline and multicolored boxes. “How do you account for the fact that the department had . . . misled Congress?” he demanded.

“Well, I think there is some validity in the concern that you raised,” Holder conceded.

“I do, too,” the senator said, interrupting.

“Well, I hope so,” Holder said. “It is your question, so I assume you do.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried next. “I’d be curious,” he said. “Any mistake that you personally have made?”

“I think that I acted in a responsible way,” Holder said.

But three hours later, the opposition still hadn’t given the controversy new altitude. Cornyn found himself playing semantics with the witness, asking Holder about the “false” letter sent to Congress.

“What I said is it contains inaccurate information,” Holder said.

“Well, isn’t that false?”

“False, I think, implies people making a decision to deceive.”

“It’s not true: Do you agree with that?”

“I’d say it’s not accurate.”

The Republicans may be furious, but this political scandal is going nowhere — fast.

danamilbank@washpost.com