A House committee investigating the Justice Department's botched "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling investigation plans to vote next week on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says Obama's attorney general isn't cooperating with the panel's effort to get to the bottom of the so-called gun-walking scandal, in which Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents let thousands of weapons "walk" across the border and into the hands of Mexican drug cartels as part of a botched sting. How will this showdown end? Here, a brief guide:
First off: What is this "gun-walking" scandal?
ATF agents let suspects buy 2,000 AK-47s and other guns, hoping to catch them in the act of smuggling the arsenal to drug cartels in Mexico. Instead, they lost track of the lethal bait. Two U.S. law-enforcement officers have since been killed with weapons involved in the scandal.
What does the committee want from Holder?
Republicans say Holder has refused to hand over documents subpoenaed in October. No one disputes that the Justice Department has already ponied up 7,600 pages of material to the committee, but Issa says some things are still missing — particularly, documents on "the claims of whistleblowers, and why it took the department nearly a year to retract false denials" that federal agents had allowed guns to make their way into the hands of Mexican criminals.
What does Holder say?
In testimony before the committee, Holder said last week that he had turned over everything Issa asked for. Democrats on the committee said their Republican counterparts were conducting a "witch hunt," and Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the contempt threat was "unfortunate and unwarranted." She also accused Issa of distorting the facts and ignoring the testimony of Holder, who has appeared before the committee eight times.
Would a contempt vote be unprecedented?
No. But it would be just the fourth contempt charge in 30 years to be launched by Congress against a member of the executive branch. In 1983, Congress found EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford in contempt for failing to hand over documents; in 1998, the GOP-controlled House Oversight committee did the same to Attorney General Janet Reno over a subpoena on campaign finance law violations; and in 2008, the Democratic-led committee found former White House counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff John Bolton in contempt during an inquiry into whether a purge of federal prosecutors by the Bush administration was politically motivated.
What happens next?
Expect a lot of behind the scenes wrangling between now and the vote, which is scheduled for June 20. Deputy Attorney General James Cole has offered to meet personally with Issa, and says he is confident that "the two of us, working in good faith," can reach a solution. But if they can't put to rest the "long-simmering dispute" between Issa and Holder, and the committee cites Holder for contempt, the matter goes to the full House, where Issa says he has 31 Democrats willing to vote against Holder. If the House approves, the case goes to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who could file a criminal contempt. Though it's unlikely to reach this point, the charge carries a penalty of a month to a year in jail and fine of $100 to $1,000.