Yesterday, the White House denounced the threat from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to vote on contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder as nothing more than election-year theatrics.  Jay Carney insisted that Holder and the Department of Justice have cooperated with Oversight:

“[Holder]takes the allegations that have been raised very seriously and that is why he asked the inspector general to investigate the matter,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters today. “It is also why you see the Department cooperating with congressional investigators, including producing 7,600 pages of documents and including testifying at hours and hours on congressional hearings.” …

“Given the Justice Department’s efforts to accommodate the committee investigation, I can only refer you to the Republican House Judiciary member who recently conceded that this investigation is, quote, politics,” Carney said today.

Do House Republicans really want a high-profile showdown for the sake of election-year politicking — or do they just want the documents?  Politico says that Republicans are on the level, and hope to avoid the contempt vote if possible:

House Republicans sounded like they were ready to go to war with the Obama administration Monday over the Fast and Furious program as they announced a committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

But behind the scenes, House Republican leaders want nothing more than for the White House and Justice Department to fork over thousands of pages of documents related to the ill-fated gun-running program and avoid a dramatic — and potentially distracting — House floor showdown.

Even as Speaker John Boehner said Monday that the DOJ is “out of excuses,” his staff and the Justice Department are continuing informal discussions. Those talks haven’t yielded any progress, and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is planning his contempt vote for June 20 in committee.

Why?  Boehner and GOP leadership see this as a loser for the general election, not a winner.  They don’t want to offer any new distractions to the Obama campaign or House Democrats from the sagging economy and the sorry state of job creation.  While GOP leadership wants the documents from the DoJ to which Congress is eminently entitled, they see this as a net negative.

Are they right?  Politically, they may have a point.  However, Democrats are not likely to run on their defense of Eric Holder in any case this November, nor attack Republicans for probing Operation Fast & Furious.  In fact, they’re not likely to mention it at all.  Neither are Republicans, for the reasons noted in the Politico article, except in the presidential race, and even then as perhaps nothing more than a tertiary issue, far down the list from the economy and jobs, followed by the deficit and debt.  It doesn’t look to be as big of a risk for the GOP as it does for Democrats, especially if the documents get released and a smoking gun appears.

Legally, however, Issa is on solid ground, and morally as well, as a Roll Call column argued yesterday.  Legal analysts Mark J. Rozell and Mitchell Sollenberger conclude that Oversight has no choice but to pursue contempt charges as long as Holder continues to defy Congress:

But newly leaked information about the DOJ’s actions leaves no doubt that the committee has a duty now to aggressively pursue any and all information germane to its investigation. Six wiretap applications for the Fast and Furious program signed off by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco  provide clear evidence that this scandal reaches the top level of the DOJ. Dismissing the investigation as mere partisan politics simply is not credible given what we now know.

The undisputed fact is that there are two dead federal agents and potentially hundreds killed in Mexico because top DOJ officials approved the sale of thousands of weapons and never determined how such dangerous firearms would be tracked.

Furthermore, DOJ has been sitting on a request for specific information about Fast and Furious since October. To be sure, it has produced a series of Friday night document dumps that allow the attorney general to testify that he and the department are really cooperating with this investigation.

But everyone on the committee knows it is the oldest trick in the book to release reams of materials while holding back those that are most directly germane to answering its questions. And one cannot help but wonder what information is in the more than 130,000 documents relating to Fast and Furious that Holder recently admitted that the Justice Department has not disclosed. …

Obama’s Justice Department and other federal law enforcement agencies mismanaged Operation Fast and Furious at every step of the way, from implementation to investigation. Regardless of whether the scandal resulted from willful deceit or simple incompetence on the part of top DOJ officials, Holder must now cooperate. Otherwise, a contempt resolution is necessary.

Indeed — even if it’s politically inconvenient.  Congress has to defend its prerogative for oversight of executive-branch agencies, especially those dealing with law enforcement.  That’s not an election-year consideration, but painfully necessary balance-of-power hygiene.

Update: John Boehner forcefully denied that House Republican leadership was less than fully on board with Issa’s efforts:

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told TheDC, though, that it was inaccurate for Politico to report that.

“There are no talks between the Speakers’ office and the Department of Justice aimed at resolving this – and any such discussions would be handled by Chairman Issa and his staff,” Steel said in an email.

“There is no daylight between the House Republican leadership and the Oversight Committee on this issue,” wrote Steel. “We are all committed to holding the Department of Justice accountable.”

We’ll see soon enough.  If Oversight votes to send contempt charges to the full House, Boehner will have to schedule the vote — and the timing of that effort will be revealing.