A House panel voted Wednesday in favor of holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a move that inflamed partisan rancor on Capitol Hill and sets up the possibility of legal action against the attorney general himself.
Holder has not yet been formally held in contempt of Congress. The full House would still need to approve the resolution in order for that to happen -- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., afterward told Fox News that such a floor vote can still be avoided.
But the 23-17 party-line vote on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee marked a significant turn in lawmakers' 16-month investigation into the botched anti-gunrunning operation Fast and Furious. With the vote, Republicans on the committee signaled they had exhausted all other means to extract sought-after documents from the Justice Department -- though Democrats had insisted there was still an opportunity to sort out the mess without a contempt vote.
"We and the American people need answers sooner, not later," said Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the committee.
Issa pressed ahead with the vote Wednesday despite an eleventh-hour move by President Obama to assert executive privilege over the Fast and Furious documents at the heart of the dispute.
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Preceding the vote late Wednesday afternoon was a caustic debate before the committee that spanned six hours, as Democrats accused Issa of prosecuting a "political witch hunt" and Republicans stepped up their criticism of Holder's "stonewalling" over the Fast and Furious probe. Even for Washington, the tone at the hearing was decidedly bitter and accusatory.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., shouted while rattling off his complaints against the Justice Department.
On the other side, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking Democrat of the committee, offered an impassioned defense of the attorney general even as he and other Democrats acknowledged Fast and Furious was severely flawed.
"I don't think he's hiding a damn thing," Cummings said of Holder shortly before the contempt vote.
Democrats roundly voiced disappointment with the proceedings, describing them as politically motivated and avoidable. They pleaded with Issa to seriously consider Obama's executive privilege claim -- the first Obama has asserted -- while some said Holder was being punished for withholding internal documents he shouldn't be turning over anyway.
Republicans praised Issa for pressing ahead, describing the vote as entirely unavoidable considering the department's alleged refusal to cooperate. They frequently invoked the name of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry -- Fast and Furious-linked guns were found at the scene of Terry's murder in 2010. And Issa indicated he was waiting for a more detailed explanation from the White House, and a letter from Obama himself, before even considering changing course based on the executive privilege claim.
Issa also accused the Justice Department of trying to compel the committee to close its investigation in exchange for documents it hasn't yet seen. "I can't accept that deal. No other committee chairman would," he said.
But Cummings fired back that Holder never made such a demand -- a Justice official also refuted Issa's claim -- and said the attorney general had come to the committee in "good faith" to try and work out an agreement.
Cummings said the contempt vote has "diminished" the prestige of the panel. "For the past year, you've been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard," he said, addressing Issa. "Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way. It really didn't."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., added that she was "horrified" by the panel's looming vote, calling it a "political witch hunt" and accusing Republicans of "overruling" the president.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was first informed of the president's decision to assert executive privilege over the disputed Fast and Furious documents in a letter Wednesday morning, shortly before the contempt vote was scheduled.
Issa said committee staff were evaluating the letter but described the move as too little, too late as he and other GOP lawmakers questioned the basis for the assertion.
"This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings," Issa said.
The committee, while voting down several Democratic amendments to the resolution, later approved a GOP amendment designating Obama's executive privilege claim as inappropriate.
The move by Holder and Obama to lock down some requested documents only complicates the fight over the botched anti-gunrunning operation between the legislative and executive branches.
After Holder made the request to Obama via letter on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Issa, R-Calif., on Wednesday informing him that the president has granted the request.
"We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee's concerns and to accommodate the committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious," Cole wrote. "Although we are deeply disappointed that the committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the department remains willing to work with the committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues."
Obama's decision pertains to documents from February 2011 and afterward examining how Justice officials learned about the Fast and Furious probe.
Holder, in his letter to Obama requesting he assert executive privilege, said those documents pertain to the "deliberative process" on how to respond to congressional and media inquiries.
In a statement released late Wednesday, Holder accused Issa of rejecting all efforts to "reach a reasonable accommodation."
"Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch. This divisive action does not help us fix the problems that led to this operation or previous ones and it does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer. It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention -- and, as a result -- has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people," he said. Holder said claims that his department was unresponsive are "untrue."
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer also called the vote"a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition."
But Issa countered with a statement asserting the vote was "not the outcome I had hoped for." He said it "would not have occurred had Attorney General Eric Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide."
Wednesday's developments follow a flurry of activity Tuesday, as Holder tried to negotiate a way to avert the contempt proceedings. Issa had earlier indicated a willingness to postpone the vote after Holder indicated a willingness to make compromises and supply some documents in response to House Republicans' subpoena.
But Issa told reporters after a roughly 20-minute meeting with Holder Tuesday that the attorney general instead briefed them on the documents in lieu of delivering them.
Issa told Fox News that Holder didn't provide "anything in writing."
Issa further said during the committee meeting Wednesday that the purpose of the probe "has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt." He said the committee had an aide on Capitol Hill all night in the hope that the Justice Department might send over documents to the panel.
The failed Fast and Furious operation attempted selling thousands of guns to arms dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border to trace them to leaders of drug cartels. However, many of them showed up in crime scenes. Congressional investigators have been trying to determine if and when high-level Justice officials knew about problems with the operation.
After a day in which their son's name was repeatedly invoked, Terry's parents Josephine and Kent Terry also released a statement Wednesday afternoon expressing disappointment with the administration's latest actions.
"Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to fully disclose the documents associated with Operation Fast and Furious and President Obama's assertion of executive privilege serves to compound this tragedy. It denies the Terry family and the American people the truth," they said.
The Department of Justice has adamantly defended its response. Holder said Issa rejected what he thought was "an extraordinary offer."
GOP House leadership has given Issa the green light to proceed how he sees fit, sources told Fox News, which suggests the vote would reach the House floor.
Issa had demanded to see a trove of documents on the controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation. He also wants to know who prepared a now-retracted letter from Feb. 4, 2011, in which the department claimed the U.S. did not knowingly help smuggle guns to Mexico, including those found where Terry was killed.