WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - A House oversight committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, marking an escalation of the long-running dispute between Republicans and the Justice Department over internal administration documents related to Operation Fast and Furious.The 23-17 vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress came as President Obama on Wednesday morning invoked executive privilege of certain documents related to the controversial botched gun-trafficking sting.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Holder met late Tuesday for about 20 minutes in an unsuccessful, last-minute effort to head off Wednesday's contempt hearing. Holder told reporters following the meeting that he offered to provide the documents on the condition that Issa give his assurance that doing so would satisfy two committee subpoenas and resolve the dispute.
But Issa said the conditions that Holder tried to set were unacceptable.
"Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt," Issa said. "Our purpose has always been to get the information the committee needs to complete its work - that it is not only entitled to, but obligated to do."
Two weapons traced to the gun operation - which allowed hundreds of firearms from the United States into Mexico - were recovered at the scene of the 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The agent's death brought an end to the gun-trafficking operation. The investigation into the operation was spurred after Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, inquired into whistle-blower allegations that the government had allowed the transfer of illegally purchased weapons into Mexico.
Issa wants to see documents that would shed light on internal discussions since February 2011, when the Justice Department sent a letter to Congress denying allegations of "gun-walking." That letter was later withdrawn by the Justice Department.
The White House pointed out that this is the first time Obama has asserted executive privilege during his presidency. President George W. Bush claimed the privilege six times and President Clinton 14 times.
The Republican National Committee noted that in 2007 Obama twice in interviews with CNN was critical of the Bush administration's use of executive privilege.
"You know, there's been a tendency on the part of this administration to - to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there's something a little shaky that's taking place," then-Sen. Obama said in an interview with Larry King. In the second interview, Obama said that "the issue of executive power and executive privilege is one that is subject to abuse, and in an Obama presidency what you will see will be a sufficient respect for law and co-equal branches of government."
In a letter written to Obama on Tuesday advocating for the president to assert executive privilege, Holder said he was "very concerned that the compelled production to Congress of internal Executive Branch documents generated in the course of the deliberative process concerning its response to congressional oversight and related media inquiries would have significant, damaging consequences."
Grassley, ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, slammed the White House on Wednesday for the move.
"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?" Grassley said in a statement. "How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer also pushed back, saying, "Congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition.
"The problem of gun-walking was a field-driven tactic that dated back to the previous administration, and it was this administration's attorney general who ended it," Pfeiffer said. "In fact, the Justice Department has spent the past 14 months accommodating Congressional investigators, producing 7,600 pages of documents and testifying at 11 Congressional hearings. Yet, Republicans insist on moving forward with an effort that Republicans and objective legal experts have noted is purely political."
Republican leaders are now on track to bring the resolution to the House floor for a vote before the July Fourth recess. It is expected to pass.
"I think this is a sad moment for this committee and the Congress," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., likening the contempt hearing to a "kangaroo court" because the GOP partisan advantage on the committee all but assured the contempt resolution would pass.
Connolly defended Holder as "an honorable man" and said House Republicans were targeting him in an effort to diminish President Obama, who is seeking re-election. "We are going to tarnish (Holder's) reputation because that's how we get to the president of the United States," Connolly said.
Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., a former U.S. attorney, defended the inquiry. "Who knew what, and when did they know? These are very legitimate questions to be asking."
The contempt resolution will have little practical effect on Holder or the Obama administration. The Democratic-controlled Senate will not take action on a contempt resolution. The issue has been percolating in Congress since Republicans took control of Congress in 2011, but the timing of the vote in an election year has further injected politics into the debate.
Mitt Romney's presidential campaign criticized Obama's decision to invoke executive privilege. It is a betrayal of his "pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise," said spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The Obama campaign retorted in a statement that they "look forward to a debate with Mitt Romney about transparency and how he erased his hard drives as governor of Massachusetts and refuses to release his tax returns, reveal his campaign bundlers, say how he'd pay for his tax plan, or make public his fundraisers."
The National Rifle Association supports the contempt resolution and announced Wednesday that it would score the vote, which will affect how the powerful gun lobby ranks and endorses lawmakers.
"This is an issue of the utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate evaluations," wrote NRA executive director Chris Cox in a letter to congressional leaders.
The parents of Brian Terry, the Border Patrol officer whose death put the spotlight on the gun-walking program, also criticized the Obama administration.
"Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious," Josephine Terry and Kent Terry Sr. said in a statement issued by the family's attorney.