Republican lawmakers clashed with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday over Justice Department efforts to block voter-ID laws in several Southern states during this election year.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee also grilled Holder over the botched “Fast and Furious” operation, in which federal agents in Arizona allowed suspected arms traffickers to buy more than 2,000 guns in order to track them to a Mexican drug cartel.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) slammed onto the dais court-sealed wiretap applications in the case, which he said he had received from whistleblowers. He claimed that they showed that senior Justice Department officials learned about the operation earlier than they had acknowledged.
“Have you and your attorneys produced internally the materials responsive to the subpoenas?” Issa asked.
“We believe that we have responded to the subpoenas,” Holder replied.
“No, Mr. Attorney General, you’re not a good witness!” Issa shouted. “A good witness answers the question asked.”
One by one, Republicans hammered Holder, and Democratic members of Congress came to his defense. The attorney general, who has appeared before Congress eight times in the past year, pushed back several times. When Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) insisted that an e-mail written by a deputy assistant attorney general referred to the “gun walking” tactics used in Fast and Furious, Holder maintained it did not.
“I have superior knowledge,” Holder shot back.
But much of the hearing focused on state laws that require voters to show a photo ID. Justice officials blocked such a law in Texas in March, saying the statute disproportionately harms Hispanics. The action followed a Justice Department effort in late December to block a voter-ID law in South Carolina that officials said adversely affects black voters.
Eight states passed stricter laws on voter identification last year, and critics say the measures could hurt turnout among minority voters. Supporters say the laws are needed to combat voter fraud.
The Justice Department has also challenged an effort by Florida’s Republican secretary of state to remove noncitizens from voter-registration lists, saying it is illegal to conduct such a purge this close to an election.
“Why would the Department of Justice not want states to remove ineligible felons, ineligible non-citizens and the dead from their voter rolls?” Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) asked Holder. “The administration’s actions aren’t just wrong — they are arrogant, undemocratic and an insult to the rule of law.”
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) also hammered Holder about efforts to block tougher voter-ID laws. “Wouldn’t I have to show a government-issued photo ID to get in to see you?” Lungren asked Holder. “Are you inhibiting . . . my constitutional right by requiring me to show a government-issued photo ID?”
Holder said that the laws being challenged by Justice “have an impact on a person’s ability to exercise that most fundamental of constitutional rights, and that is the right to vote.”
Issa has threatened for months to hold Holder in contempt of Congress if Justice officials do not turn over more Fast and Furious documents. During the hearing, Holder insisted that his department is cooperating with Issa’s committee.
“We’ve produced 7,600,” Holder started to say, referring to the pages that Justice officials have turned over to Issa’s committee.
But Issa angrily interrupted him. “Look, I don’t want to hear about the 7,600,” he said.
The controversy over Fast and Furious heated up again this week when Issa, who is also chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he had obtained the wiretap applications. He said they showed that senior Justice officials, including Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, were given information about the controversial tactics used in Fast and Furious before December 2010. Two guns from the operation were found at the scene of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry on Dec. 14, 2010.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that Issa “continues to distort the facts” and that Breuer and other senior officials “were not aware of the flawed tactics in Fast and Furious until they became public in early 2011.” Schmaler also said that the court-sealed wiretap applications in an ongoing criminal case were illegally leaked and Justice officials could not discuss them.
During the hearing, several House Democrats placed on the record letters expressing support for Holder and asking Issa not to pursue his contempt citation, including ones from Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Women’s Law Center and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Another letter was written on behalf of several of the survivors of the mass shooting in Tucson in which former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was wounded.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.