White House, Republicans dig in for battle over Holder investigation

A day after a congressional committee recommended that the House hold the nation’s attorney general in contempt in connection with an investigation of a botched federal gun-running operation, the White House and its Republican rivals sought to position themselves as the principled parties in a high-stakes game of election-year brinkmanship.

The White House suggested Thursday that it would abandon negotiations over the release of documents related to the operation until GOP lawmakers stop trying to embarrass President Obama. And Republican leaders insisted that they are prepared to move forward with a contempt vote in the House next week in an effort to get to “the truth for the American people,” said Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio).

The two sides dug in for a potentially protracted and bitter fight that presents hazards for both parties. For Obama, his decision this week to invoke executive privilege to block House investigators from obtaining private memos has exposed him to charges of hypocrisy and invigorated an important part of the Republican base just months before the election.

For Republicans, the move to sanction Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. risked overreaching in an investigation that has dragged on for months, and allowed the White House to portray them as partisan hacks determined to bring down Obama.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney called the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s party-line vote on Holder on Wednesday nothing more than “an attempt to score political points.”

Such tactics help explain “why this Congress has the lowest public approval rating of any in memory,” Carney said. “This is about politics. This is not about an effort to divine the truth in a serious matter.”

Obama’s use of executive privilege for the first time signaled once again the White House’s willingness to use Congress as an election-year foil and link presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to far-right elements of the party.

But political analysts said the strategy remains dicey.

“The president risks his own stature, his own credibility with the public. It’s not good for the president no matter how he portrays the Republicans,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

The White House has declined to turn over documents related to Operation “Fast and Furious,” which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The oversight committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is seeking Justice Department documents about the operation, which involved the flow of illegal guns to Mexico, including material related to officials’ internal deliberations. Administration officials said they negotiated in good faith with Issa’s committee through Tuesday.

The Justice Department is not planning to modify its final offer, which would have been a briefing and access to some internal deliberation documents that department officials think would have answered Issa’s questions. In return, Holder wanted assurances that the subpoena and contempt issues will be resolved.

That was not enough for Issa. His committee is seeking all the internal deliberation documents from the period after Feb. 4, 2011, and it is not prepared to resolve the matter until it obtains them, congressional officials said.

House Republican leaders on Thursday maintained their plan to hold a vote next week on the contempt charges, but they have not set a date. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said they will postpone or drop plans to hold a vote only if the Justice Department complies with the requests to disclose the documents.

“What we want is the truth. And we want to get to the bottom of this,” Boehner said. He insisted that the vote is “about getting to the truth for the American people” and “not about personalities.”

But the Republican strategy had its own risks. Never before has the full House held the nation’s top lawyer in contempt. In 1998, a House committee voted to place then-Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt for not turning over Justice Department memos in a dispute over her not appointing an independent counsel to investigate 1996 campaign fundraising abuses by President Bill Clinton. The memos were disclosed months later, and the full House never voted on the contempt charges.

Jane Sherburne, a special counsel in the Clinton White House who is now in private practice, said Obama appeared to be justified in withholding the documents after efforts to reach a compromise failed. She said she would advise the White House to hang tough and take the full House contempt vote. Enforcement of a House contempt citation resides with the District’s U.S. attorney, who works for the Justice Department.

“I suppose the House Republicans could take the extreme position that the situation requires the appointment of an independent counsel to prosecute contempt. But I don’t see them taking the political risks that come with going that route. So a House vote may be the end of it, with both sides left to characterize it as they will,” she said.

Republicans seemed willing to try. “I’d like to be moving constructive, healthy policy, but there’s not going to be compromise on principle,” said Rep. Steve King (R-
Iowa), who plans to sue the Obama administration for the information Holder refuses to disclose.

Democrats think Republicans have painted themselves into a corner on the Holder proceedings and will appear focused on partisan attacks at a time when the economy is sputtering.

“It’s a bunch of silliness. It’s too political,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) said.

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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