Democrats took to the offensive today, criticizing Republicans who they say have turned the congressional inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious into a “partisan hunt for scalps of senior Justice Department administration officials,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in a news conference on the Capitol steps.
Reps. Schiff, Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) hosted a press conference this afternoon to discuss the upcoming House contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. The House Democrats said the investigation into the botched gun-walking operation obscures the real issue: gun control.
Republicans are “going after Holder like an obsession — like Ahab going after the great whale trying to get political blood,” Maloney said. “I call Fast and Furious ‘vast and spurious’ because there is nothing there.”
She added: ”Instead of going after the scalps of politicians … we should be going after reforms … that would put real penalities behind straw-purchasing. What we’re doing is going after paperwork.”
Quigley called for more hearings on gun control and criticized House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif).
“I’ll say this: If Issa was a prosecutor this would be prosecutorial misconduct,” Quigley said. “We haven’t had a hearing on that [gun safety] matter in three or four years. Let’s talk about the gun show loophole.”
Quigley cited as problematic the fact that anyone can purchase “any gun [they] want without a background check” at gun shows.
The lawmakers’ comments come just one day before the full House is slotted to vote on the contempt charges. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced today the vote will proceed as scheduled. On Tuesday, Justice Department officials, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, Boehner’s aides, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) met to discuss ways to avoid the contempt vote. But the talks fell through.
Connolly echoed many of his colleagues statements but also called for Congress to take another look at the assault weapon ban, which expired under the George W. Bush administration in 2004.
“There has been a deliberate attempt to suppress any discussion about gun control — about the need for gun control, about the need for tougher laws,” he said. ”The Attorney General of Mexico said the single most important thing we can do if we want to stop gun violence is … reinstate the assault weapons ban.”
He called the contempt vote a “nuclear option.”
Jackson Lee defended the attorney general and criticized Chairman Issa’s decision to pursue a contempt measure and called on Boehner (R-Ohio) to halt contempt proceedings.
“What will happen tomorrow is an extreme example of waste, fraud and abuse,” said Jackson Lee. “I believe our Speaker can take a stand now.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) echoed Jackson Lee’s call for the speaker to take action in a letter he wrote to Boehner this afternoon.
“I urge you to take a direct and personal role in trying to resolve this issue in a way that honors our Constitutional obligation,” Cummings wrote. “As an officer specifically named in the Constitution, you have a responsibility to set aside politics — particularly on an occasion like this.”
Recently, Republican lawmakers and pundits have followed Rush Limbaugh in calling Operation Fast and Furious a conspiracy to enrage the public to call for more serious gun control laws.
When asked if the press conference today merely buffered the theory, Schiff said the point was moot.
“We have been calling to crack down on cross border gun trafficking for years,” he said. ”Members of Congress for years have been advocating for gun control.”
When asked about the National Rifle Assocation’s recent announcement it plans to include the contempt vote in its “future candidate evaluation” Schiff said he was positive the Democrats would lose a number of votes.
“I’m sure that we will [lose a certain number of Democratic member votes],” he said. ”But you have to ask yourself why the NRA is wading in to a contempt issue.”
Minutes before the press conference, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said he would vote against the contempt charges, saying the House is “rushing to judgment.”
“I am not convinced a case has been made to hold an Attorney General in contempt for the first time in our nation’s history,” he said. ”These are serious charges and I’m concerned that my colleagues will base their votes solely on the findings of a flawed investigation by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.”
Cooper suggested his colleagues wait for the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report, saying the IG’s office has the authority to dig much deeper than the committee and can do so in “an apolitical fashion.”
If the vote passes on Thursday it would mark the first time in history a sitting cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress. In 1998 the Oversight Committee cited then-Attorney General Janet Reno with a contempt of Congress charge because Reno failed to provide the committee with documents relating to then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The requested documents were given to the committee just hours before the full House was to vote on the charges and the contempt charge was dismissed.
Lead by Issa, the Oversight Committee voted along party lines 23-17 last week to advance the contempt charges against the Attorney General. President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over a number of the internal deliberative documents Issa has been after just minutes before the hearing began.
The Fast and Furious scandal has become a heated issue in the midst of this year’s election campaigns. Quigley said in an House Oversight Committee hearing earlier this month the effort to hold the Attorney General accountable for the botched gun-walking operation has become politically motivated, a sentiment echoed by many Democratic lawmakers.
Operation Fast and Furious was headed jointly by the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Officials allowed thousands of guns to cross the Southwest border and tracked them in an effort to find and acquire the evidence necessary to prosecute leaders in Mexican drug cartels. But the plan backfired and hundreds of guns were lost. Two were found at the scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s death. Terry died in a shootout between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits.