U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, April 18, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
WASHINGTON, June 21 (UPI) -- U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday Republicans are investigating Attorney General Eric Holder to sap efforts to stop voter suppression.
Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters on Capitol Hill Republican threats to find Holder in contempt of Congress regarding an investigation of a gun-running program known as "Operation Fast and Furious" are intended to "not only to monopolize his time, it's to undermine his name," Politico reported.
"Contempt of Congress, contempt of Congress," Pelosi said. "To frivolously use that really important vehicle to undermine the person who is assigned to stop the voter suppression in our country."
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told Politico Pelosi's accusation was "offensive and wrong."
"This investigation began a year and a half ago after a U.S. Border Patrol Agent was murdered and guns from Operation Fast and Furious were found at the crime scene," Hill said in a statement.
The House may vote next week on holding Holder in contempt, unless Holder turns over documents Issa's committee has asserted may show the Justice Department sought to mislead the committee about Fast and Furious, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday.
The vote in the Republican-controlled chamber would follow Wednesday's 23-17 party-line vote by the oversight committee -- the lower chamber's main investigative committee -- to cite Holder for contempt of Congress. Wednesday's vote came hours after President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege, seeking to block Republicans from gaining access to the Justice Department documents about the operation.
Executive privilege lets the president and other executive branch members resist certain subpoenas and other interventions by the government's legislative and judicial branches as part of the separation-of-powers doctrine.
The Justice Department is part of the executive branch.
Democrats said the House contempt move was intended to embarrass Holder and inflict political damage on the administration. They noted Congress had never before cited a sitting attorney general for contempt.
Republicans accused the administration of a "coverup" and questioned the constitutionality of Obama's claim of executive privilege for internal Justice Department deliberations.
"Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt," Issa said. "Our purpose has always been to get the information the committee needs to complete its work -- that it is not only entitled to, but obligated to do."
Holder issued a statement calling the committee's action "political theater" and said Issa was trying to "provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch" as an "election-year tactic."
Issa and Holder met Tuesday in a last-minute effort to head off Wednesday's contempt hearing, which preceded the committee vote.
Holder offered to give some of the disputed documents to the committee if Issa would agree to end the fight over contempt. But Issa refused to consider doing so until he saw the papers.
Issa's committee has asked to see Justice Department internal-discussion documents since February 2011 about the 2009-2011 Fast and Furious strategy for combating Mexican drug cartels.
The operation, run by Arizona agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, used a controversial tactic called gun-walking, which let suspected smugglers buy more than 2,000 firearms -- including AK-47 variants, .50-caliber sniper rifles, .38-caliber revolvers and semiautomatic pistols -- without intercepting the weapons.
The stated goal of permitting the purchases was to track the firearms as they were transferred to higher-level traffickers and key Mexican cartel figures. This would then lead to the figures' arrests and the cartels' dismantling, the thinking went.
But the agents lost track of several hundred of the weapons.
Some guns later turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including at a Dec. 14, 2010, shootout in which U.S. border agent Brian Terry was killed.
The gun-walking operation became public after Terry's death.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter to Issa Wednesday Obama was claiming executive privilege over the Justice Department documents because their disclosure would chill the candor of future internal deliberations.
"We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee's concerns and to accommodate the committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious," Cole's four-page letter said.
He suggested there might still be a way to negotiate the release of some of the contested documents.
The documents are normally off-limits to Congress, but Issa's committee is asking for them because the Justice Department told the committee incorrectly in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter that the operation did not use gun-walking.
Issa and House Republicans say they want to know if the denial was part of a broader effort to obstruct a congressional investigation.
The White House pointed out Obama's executive privilege claim was the first time he asserted it. President George W. Bush claimed the privilege six times and President Bill Clinton claimed it 14 times.
The Republican National Committee noted that in 2007 Obama twice in interviews with CNN was critical of the Bush administration's use of executive privilege.
If the full House votes to support the contempt-of-Congress resolution -- declaring Holder obstructed the work of Congress -- then a contempt citation could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, an Obama appointee in Holder's chain of command, The Wall Street Journal reported.
If it ends up in the courts, the dispute would raise constitutional questions about the power of the executive branch vs. Congress, analysts say.
Previous such battles have ended with some kind of truce between the sides before reaching that stage.