A House committee voted Wednesday along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents to congressional investigators from the Fast and Furious" gun walking operation.
The White House dismissed the vote and the proceedings as "political theater," but the contempt vote will increase political pressure on both Holder and the Justice Department. The full House of Representatives could consider the contempt resolution as soon as next week.
The vote against Holder came hours after the White House invoked executive privilege over documents the committee subpoenaed more than eight months ago. It is the first time President Obama has asserted executive privilege in a dispute with Congress and Republicans said it was clear Obama was trying to shield Holder from the investigation.
"Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt. 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," said Issa, R-Calif., as he began the proceedings. "If the Justice Department had delivered the documents they freely admitted they could deliver, we wouldn't be here today."
In a letter Tuesday to Obama, Holder formally requested presidential intervention, citing "significant, damaging consequences" in releasing the documents and "separation of powers concerns."
At issue are about 1,300 pages of documents from February to December 2011 that detail the Department of Justice's communications following a DOJ letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that falsely claimed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made every effort to stop guns from going to Mexico after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry's death was linked to guns from the ATF operation. In an effort to possibly find a cover-up within the administration, Issa is seeking documents on how DOJ reacted as the gun scandal unfolded between February and December 2011.
The documents "were not generated in the course of the conduct of Fast and Furious. Instead, they were created after the investigative tactics at issue in that operation had terminated and in the course of the Department's deliberative process concerning how to respond to congressional and related media inquiries into that operation," Holder wrote to the president in asking for him to assert executive privilege.
Republican committee members said the documents in question could shed light on whether officials participated in a cover-up.
Grassley, who has been leading a Senate investigation into Fast and Furious, said Obama's move raises "monumental questions."
"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?" Grassley asked in a prepared 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?"
Holder claims the Justice Department has provided "extraordinary" access to documents and administration officials to answer questions about the incident.
Members on both sides of the aisle called the need for contempt proceedings "a sad day" for Congress and the American people, and Democrats repeatedly decried what they viewed as a "political witch-hunt" against President Obama during an election year.
"I am astounded that today we are sitting here weighing whether to hold the attorney general of the United States, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in our country, in contempt of Congress," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "It shouldn't be a political witch hunt against the attorney general of our country and our president in an election year."
Still, Issa and Republicans on the committee believe the as-yet-undisclosed information is critical to understanding how the administration responded to the unfolding scandal surrounding a program that allegedly allowed U.S. weapons to cross the border into Mexico in order to track gun runners. One of the weapons was later found to be used in the shooting death of a U.S. border patrol agent.
Obama administration officials said the assertion of privilege over non-presidential executive branch communications is not unprecedented.
President Bill Clinton used executive privilege 14 times and President George W. Bush invoked it six times, officials said, including in cases that involved documents similar to those sought in the Fast and Furious congressional inquiry.