Attorney General Eric Holder showed no sign of backing down Wednesday in his escalating battle with House Republicans over his handling of the fallout from the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling investigation. He denounced a House committee's party-line vote to hold him in contempt of Congress as "divisive," "political theater," and "entirely unnecessary."
In a defiant statement released moments after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's 23-17 vote, the nation's top law enforcement officer denied improperly stonewalling the Republican-controlled panel's demands for Justice Department documents and took aim at its chairman, California Republican Darrell Issa.
"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," Holder said.
"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," Holder charged. Issa met with Holder late Tuesday to find a last-minute path out of the expanding constitutional conflict, but said afterward that they had failed to reach a satisfactory arrangement regarding lawmakers' access to documents connected to Fast and Furious. The operation aimed to track the flow of guns from the United States into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, but many firearms went missing and two turned up at the scene of the killing of Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Republicans have accused Holder of misleading them on what he knew about the operation and when. The attorney general has blamed Republicans for playing politics by rejecting his offers to make some of the materials available. Obama has rejected Republican calls to dismiss Holder.
"From the beginning, Chairman Issa and certain members of the Committee have made unsubstantiated allegations first, then scrambled for facts to try to justify them later," Holder said in his statement after the committee voted.
"That might make for good political theater, but it does little to uncover the truth or address the problems associated with this operation and prior ones dating back to the previous Administration," said the attorney general. Holder noted he had ordered a full investigation into Fast and Furious by the Justice Department's inspector general and said it would yield "a tough, independent review" of the failed operation.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have said the full House of Representatives will vote to find Holder in contempt of Congress next week "unless the Attorney General reevaluates his choice" and hands over the documents Issa has demanded.
If the full House approves finding Holder in contempt, the matter would be referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. That is unlikely. But the House could take the Administration to court over the issue, which could land the volatile dispute before the Supreme Court.
Rachel Hartman contributed reporting