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US politics live: Eric Holder faces ‘Fast and Furious’ questions in Congress December 8, 2011

1.20pm: Virginia Tech is in lock-down after shots were heard near the campus:

Virginia Tech says a police officer has been shot, and a possible second victim has been reported at a parking lot near the campus.

Authorities are seeking a suspect.

A campus-wide alert tells students and faculty to stay inside and lock doors.

Virginia Tech, as most people will recall, was the site of the tragic shooting of 32 students and staff members by a student on the campus in 2007.

1.15pm: Erick Erickson, the influential conservative Republican and co-founder of RedState, says that the Republican presidential nomination may go to the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa next year:

I think it is time to move beyond wishful thinking and take seriously the idea of having a brokered convention with someone other than the current crop of candidates becoming the nominee.

Erickson is not a nut – and this is a sidelight in a longer piece he has written on the state of the GOP race. And my view that there is some wishful thinking going on there. But Erickson isn’t alone among Republicans in saying this.

1.01pm: The morning-after pill decision mentioned earlier has been the subject of considerable controversy, with the American Academy of Pediatrics calling Sebelius’ decision to keep the pill on sale behind pharamcy counters “medically inexplicable”.

AP reports:

Pediatricians say the morning-after pill is safe — containing a high dose of the same female hormone that’s in regular birth control pills — especially compared to some existing over-the-counter medicines.

“I don’t think 11-year-olds go into Rite Aid and buy anything,” much less a single pill that costs about $50, added fellow AAP member Dr Cora Breuner, a professor of pediatric and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington.

With all due respect to Dr Breuner, at my local branch of [national drugstore chain], a bright 11-year-old could probably get a job behind the counter.

12.43pm: At Eric Holder’s hearing, the attorney general says there is a suspect in the killing of US border agent Brian Terry – thought to have been killed by a gun obtained from the botched Fast and Furious operation – but that he can’t speak any further because a court has sealed the matter.

12.36pm: At Obama’s mini press conference, the subject of the “Plan B” morning-after pill came up, and the decision by the Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius to keep the drug behind pharmacy counters rather than on open shelves.

In response to a question, Obama says Sebelius was concerned a 10-year-old could get the medication, which could be dangerous. “Most parents would probably feel the same way,” Obama said.

The morning-after pill will still be available without a prescription to those 17 and older who can prove their age.

12.30pm: Some massive grandstanding going on by Darryl Issa, complete with props – a set of boxes showing the information he has received from a gun-dealer compared with a solitary box showing the information he received from the Justice Department.

I’m not quite sure what his point is but it looks good on television. Well, C-Span 3.

Sample quote from Issa: “When he comes before us saying he will clean house, no house has been cleaned.”

12.22pm: The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent overview of the position Eric Holder finds himself in over Fast and Furious and the chorus of Republicans calling for his resignation.

It also notes this:

While the White House has remained relatively quiet on Fast and Furious, other Democrats have come to Holder’s defense, saying Republican calls for resignation are clearly partisan, in part because they’ve largely ignored a smaller-scale gun-walking program, “Operation Wide Receiver,” implemented during the Bush administration. However, that program, unlike Fast and Furious, was a joint operation with Mexican authorities.

12.10pm: Back to Eric Holder, who is being grilled, baked and roasted by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee over the failure of Fast and Furious.

Earlier, Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin told Holder:

If we don’t get to the bottom of this – and that requires your assistance on that – there is only one alternative that Congress has, and it’s called impeachment, where our subpoena powers are plenary and there can’t be any type of a legal immunity or privilege that can be asserted on that.

Now, you know, I’ve done more impeachments than anybody else in the history of the country. It is an expensive and messy affair. And I don’t want to go this far.

A rare moment of humour happened shortly after, from veteran Democrat John Conyers: “I merely wanted to clear the record with Jim Sensenbrenner. I’ve had far more impeachment experience than he has.”

12.04pm: And there’s this news: Iran’s state television appears to be showing video of the top secret US RQ-170 Sentinel drone that crash-landed inside Iran last week.

If the video is legitimate, the drone looks like it is intact.

12 noon: Asked about his vow to cut short his holiday until the payroll tax holiday is extended, Obama says he will delay his vacation to Hawaii until Congress acts: “I will not ask anybody to do something I’m not willing to do myself.”

With grim humour he looks at the assembled journalists and says: “Maybe we’ll have a white Christmas here in Washington.” Someone groans softly in the background.

11.56am: Obama is asked about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and what he means when he says he’s looking at all the options:

Obama: All options means I’m not taking any options off the table.

Reporter: Can you tell us what those options might be?

Obama: No.

Obama does go on to say that the US has imposed the toughest level of sanctions against Iran of any administration, and that Iran can either be isolated or “act responsibly”.

11.53am: On the European debt crisis, Obama says “obviously I am very concerned about what’s happening in Europe”. He says that he has repeatedly spoken to European leaders such as Merkel and Sarkozy, and the only question is political will:

It’s not as if we’re talking about some improvished country … this is Europe, with some of the wealthiest countries on earth.

Obama goes on to say:

We’re going to do everything we can to push them in a good direction on this … if we see Europe tank, that obviously could have a big impact on our ability to create jobs.

11.49am: Obama says he is still committed to appointing Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Finance Protection Board – and won’t rule out a recess appointment (a constitutional device that allows the president to circumvent congressional approval):

Why wouldn’t we want somebody just to make sure people are being treated fairly? Especially when not only is a family affected but our whole economy is affected.

We have Republicans in Congress who appear to have entirely forgotten how we got into this mess.

The bottom line, according to Obama, “is we’re going to look at all our options. My hope is the Republicans come to their senses.”

11.42am: Speaking from the White House briefing room, President Obama says there was no reason for the Senate to block Richard Cordray’s nomination: “This makes absolutely no sense.”

Obama is now taking questions – and the first one is on the accusations by Republican presidential candidates that he has guilty of “appeasement” of Israel’s enemies.

Here’s Obama’s pithy response:

Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.

Hard to argue with that.

11.20am: More Congressional gridlock: the Senate blocks the nomination of Richard Cordray as head of the new consumer watchdog, the Consumer Finance Protection Board. Despite winning the vote 53 to 45 Cordray’s nomination failed to clear the 60 votes required for cloture, in effect filibustering the nomination:

Republicans said they had three demands. One was for a five-member board to oversee the agency. Another was for “safety and soundness” checks of the agency’s decision-making. And they wanted the agency’s funding to be approved by Congress rather than have its budget approved by the Federal Reserve.

President Obama is to speak on the subject shortly.

11.13am: In attempt to derail the Newt Gingrich bandwagon, the Romney campaign sent out two surrogates this morning to attack his record – a sign that the GOP fight is getting more brutal, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

Former Missouri Senator Jim Talent – who served under Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House in the mid-1990s – and a Romney supporter, appeared at a press conference:

The speaker’s running as a reliable and trusted conservative leader. And what we’re here to say, with reluctance, but clearly, is that he’s not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader.

Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu laced into Gingrich for his remarks about the Medicare proposals of Republican congressman Paul Ryan earlier this year:

For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to try and make him sound a little smarter than the conservative Republican leadership, to undercut Paul Ryan is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening.

That’s reference to Gingrich calling Ryan’s plans “right-wing social engineering”.

Things are heating up nicely.

11.41am: The committee is now going into recess to allow members to vote.

10.40am: Darryl Issa, the Republican chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is next up to take a swing at Holder:

My committee just next door was systemically lied to by your own representatives. There is a high likelihood individual was deliberately duped, but he was duped by people who still work for you today, still work for you today.

The president has said he has full confidence in this attorney general. I have no confidence in a president who has full confidence in an attorney general who has in fact not terminated or dealt with the individuals, including key lieutenants who from the very beginning had some knowledge and long before Brian Terry was gunned down knew enough to stop this programme.

10.37am: Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is quickly on the attack, telling Eric Holder:

I am disappointed in the department’s repeated refusal to cooperate with this committee’s oversight request.

This lack of cooperation is evident in the department’s handling of inquiries related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Operation Fast and Furious and the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. And inconsistent statements from department officials about who knew what and when have only raised more concerns.

10.32am: Perhaps forlornly, Eric Holder says investigators should avoid soring political pints. That ship has sailed, I’m afraid.

Holder also attempts to address the death of US law enforcement officer Brian Terry – who may have been killed by a gun smuggled as part of the Fast and Furious operation:

Nearly one year ago, working to protect his fellow citizens, US Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was violently murdered in Arizona. We all should feel outrage about his death, and – as I have communicated directly to Agent Terry’s family – we are dedicated to pursuing justice on his behalf.

The Department is also working to answer questions that the Terry family has raised, including whether and how firearms connected to Fast and Furious could end up with Mexican drug cartels.

10.29am: More from Holder – who warns that the guns lost during Fast and Furious will be found for “years to come”:

Although the Department has taken steps to ensure that such tactics are never used again, it is an unfortunate reality that we will continue to feel the effects of this flawed operation for years to come. Guns lost during this operation will continue to show up at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

In other words, Fast and Furious will be a running sore for the administration.

Holder attempts to put the figures into the context of the huge flow of arms from the US to Mexico:

As we work to identify where errors occurred and to ensure that these mistakes never happen again, we must not lose sight of the critical challenge this flawed operation has highlighted: the battle to stop the flow of guns to Mexico. Of the nearly 94,000 guns that have been recovered and traced in Mexico in the last five years, more than 64,000 were sourced to the United States. In the last five years, the trafficking of firearms across our Southwest Border has contributed to approximately 40,000 deaths.

10.20am: Eric Holder is now before the committee – you can follow it live via C-Span 3 – and in his opening remarks describes the failure of Fast and Furious as “inexcusable”.

Holder told the committee that “addressing the unacceptable rate of illegal firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico” led to the disasterous policy:

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that laudable goal unacceptable tactics were adopted as a part of Operation Fast and Furious. As I have repeatedly stated, allowing guns to walk – whether in this Administration or in the prior one – is wholly unacceptable. The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable. And it must never happen again.



Police on the streets of Monterrey, Mexico. Photograph: Tomas Bravo/Reuters

10.11am: By way of background on the influence of US-sourced guns in Mexico’s drug war, the Guardian’s Chris McGreal has just visited Texas and published this investigation:

It’s a war sustained by a merry-go-round. The cartels use the money paid by Americans for drugs to buy weapons at US guns stores, which are then shipped across the frontier, often using the same vehicles and routes used to smuggle more narcotics north. The weapons are used by the cartels to protect narcotics production in their battle with the Mexican police and army, and smuggle drugs north.

Good morning: US Attorney General Eric Holder appears before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions over the government’s failed operation known as Fast and Furious, a gunning-running sting that led to weapons being passed in the hands of Mexico’s drug cartels.

It’s a complex subject but Republicans in the House of Representatives have been investigating the Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and how the Mexican cartels ended up with hundreds of firearms as a result.

Here’s the background:

Two years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched a “gun walking” operation that permitted several gun shops in Arizona to sell a total of more than 2,000 semi-automatic weapons destined for drug cartels with the intention of tracking the guns and busting the smuggling operations.

But the agents carrying out Operation Fast and Furious lost track of about 1,400 of the guns – some of which were later identified as being used in killings in Mexico and other attacks, including an incident in which a Mexican military helicopter was shot down. Two of the weapons were also recovered after a gun battle in Arizona last year in which a US border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed.

Now Holder appears before the House Judiciary Committee to be grilled once more on who knew what and when.

Elsewhere, the Republican presidential hopefuls are out and about, with more polling evidence of Newt Gingrich surging in the polls – and the Mitt Romney campaign organising a firm response this morning, rolling out some heavyweight surrogates to attack Gingrich’s record and shore up Romney’s base in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary on 10 January.

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