Congressman says Justice Department can avoid Holder contempt vote
POSTED: Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 5:00am
UPDATED: Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 11:08am
Washington (CNN) — A week before his committee is scheduled to hold a vote on a resolution holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told the Department of Justice Wednesday it still has a chance to produce materials about the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation and avoid a public vote.
Holder held out an olive branch in his testimony before a Senate committee on Tuesday, volunteering to compromise on the House committee's request for documents the DOJ has so far declined to hand over because it does not want to release details on its internal discussions. Holder also offered to meet with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Issa, R-California, or others to find a way to avoid what he called a "constitutional crisis."
Issa responded to Holder's public plea in a letter Wednesday, writing, "If the Department of Justice submits a serious proposal for how it intends to alter its refusal to produce critical documents subpoenaed by the committee, I am ready and willing to meet to discuss your proposal."
Last month, Boehner, other House GOP leaders, and Issa sent Holder a letter saying the committee had narrowed the scope of its request to documents showing internal discussions among senior DOJ officials and any materials generated after February 4, 2011, when the Justice Department initially gave Congress what Issa calls misleading accounts about the operation.
Holder retracted the DOJ's response when whistle-blowers detailed information about the sting operation, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that allowed weapons to be purchased illegally in order to track them to senior drug cartel members. Agents lost track of hundreds of weapons in the process. A federal border agent was killed in 2010 and weapons from the operation were found near his body.
Issa's letter stressed that the committee modified its request to just these two areas and reiterated that addressing those areas was the way to avoid the vote next week.
"If the department wishes to settle this dispute short of contempt, the committee has offered it a clear path to do so without the need to disclose sensitive documents created during Operations Fast and Furious," Issa wrote.
A senior Justice Department official Wednesday said the latest letter from Issa was a move in the right direction, but it was unclear whether it was yet possible to break the deadlock over providing documents demanded by Issa's investigators, and to head off a contempt vote.
"It's a positive step. We're encouraged Chairman Issa has narrowed the universe [of documents demanded]. We will respond," the Justice official said.
The Justice official, requesting anonymity, did not indicate how quickly the Justice Department would provide a formal response to Issa, but it appears likely Holder or Deputy Attorney General James Cole will respond in a letter to Issa within the next day or two.
Both sides have been battling for months over the materials. While Issa says Holder is stonewalling, Justice Department officials emphasize that they have already given more than 7,000 pages in documents to House investigators and remaining materials Issa is demanding could jeopardize criminal prosecutions.
But Issa's Wednesday letter, and the Justice Department's response, struck a more conciliatory tone. Just two days ago Issa notified members he was scheduling a vote on a contempt resolution for next week because Justice continued to refuse to release the materials. A spokeswoman for Holder dismissed that move as something from "a tired political playbook."
Despite the shift in language, the two sides continue to be very far apart on a resolution. Senior House GOP aides continue to say they want documents and the committee is pursuing its designated oversight role, but is being blocked by administration officials reluctant to detail an embarrassing program.
With five months left before the fall election, the high level back and forth with the administration and the GOP-led House has become a political battle, with few expecting either side to back down.
CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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