The White House is arguing that Attorney General Eric Holder won't be prosecuted for being held in contempt of Congress because he is protected by President Obama's use of executive privilege.
The House on Thursday voted 255-67 to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide certain documents related to the Justice Department's Fast and Furious illegal gun-running operation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Friday that Mr. Holder is safe and won't be tried on criminal contempt charges because the Justice Department, which is part of the executive branch, would never take up a contempt case against a sitting attorney general.
"It is an established principle, dating back to the administration of Ronald Reagan, that the Justice Department does not pursue prosecution in a contempt case when the president has asserted executive privilege," Mr. Carney said during a gaggle on Air Force One.
In fact, despite holding the vote itself, which keeps the issue in the headlines and embarrasses the administration, there's little Republicans can do in the short term to force Mr. Holder to cough up the documents.
Congress has the power to hold someone in what is called "inherent contempt," arrest them and place them in a still-existing cell in the Capitol, but neither chamber has used the option in more than 75 years and spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner says it's not even under consideration.
The criminal charge, which the House approved, refers the dispute to a District of Columbia U.S. attorney, who was appointed by Mr. Obama and serves under Mr. Holder, and undoubtedly would decide not to pursue the case.
A spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform brushed aside Mr. Carney's reference to legal precedence, arguing that the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia could decide to pursue the case if Mr. Holder and others in leadership positions didn't interfere.
"It is regrettable that the political leadership of the Justice Department is trying to intervene in an effort to prevent the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from making an independent decision about whether to prosecute this case," said Becca Watkins, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The separate, civil contempt charge that the House also passed Thursday, authorizes the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to sue the Justice Department to try to force Holder to turn over more documents.
The committee could vote to sue, but that effort could take years for the courts to decide. During the Democrats' investigation into the firing of several U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration, the House Judiciary Committee sued the Justice Department to try to force White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to testify. But the case was still wending its way through the court system after the Bush administration was over.
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