House Republicans said Monday that they will move to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, escalating a separation-of-powers battle over Fast and Furious, the Obama administration's botched gun-walking operation.
With the blessing of Republican leaders, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa will hold a vote next week to recommend contempt proceedings, and a House floor vote could follow soon after as the GOP seeks to keep the pressure on President Obama ahead of November's elections.
Administration officials dismissed the move as political. The Justice Department said it had been close to reaching an agreement on trying to share some of the information that the oversight committee is seeking.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Holder has had enough chances.
"The Justice Department is out of excuses," Mr. Boehner said in a statement. "Either the Justice Department turns over the information requested, or Congress will have no choice but to move forward with holding the attorney general in contempt for obstructing an ongoing investigation."
Trust on both sides is gone. Democrats argue that the GOP is pursuing a political agenda to tarnish Mr. Obama, and Republicans point to repeated denials and information the administration has provided that have later been found to be untrue.
Mr. Holder and Mr. Obama acknowledge fundamental flaws in Fast and Furious, which allowed guns to be sold to straw purchasers in the U.S. knowing they were being sent across the border to Mexican cartels. But they said the operation was handled entirely by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees, with little oversight at the Justice Department.
The department initially denied many of the details of the operation, including that guns were knowingly "walked" without being tracked, but recanted in December — including taking the embarrassing step of officially withdrawing an inaccurate letter sent to Congress.
Mr. Issa is trying to get a look at documents that he thinks would show how the Justice Department changed its mind on those details, and how high up blame should be placed for the ill-conceived program.
His committee issued a subpoena for documents in October, and Mr. Issa said Monday that the Justice Department is still withholding the information.
"Specifically, the Justice Department has refused to turn over critical documents on the grounds that they show internal department deliberations and were created after February 4, 2011 — the date Justice issued a false denial to Congress. Contempt will focus on the failure to provide these post February 4th documents," said Mr. Issa, California Republican.
Mr. Issa said the Justice Department hasn't given any valid reasons to withhold information.
Mr. Holder's spokeswoman said the contempt proceedings were "political games" that short-circuited what she said had been fruitful talks on turning over information.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said he has offered to meet with Mr. Issa to work out a compromise on documents, but that Mr. Issa has not responded to that request.
"The conversations between our staffs have been productive and we believe that an amicable resolution of these matters is achievable. Because of this, the committee's decision to set a hearing on its draft contempt resolution is premature," Mr. Cole said in a letter Monday afternoon.
During the operation, nearly 2,000 guns were sold to straw purchasers with the expectation that they would be trafficked across the border to the Sinaloa Cartel. ATF agents lost track of the guns — something that all sides now say was a major failure in planning — and the guns began to turn up at crime scenes, including at least two weapons found at the scene of a shootout that killed U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Mr. Holder said he took steps in 2011 to shut down the program and asked for an internal audit to hold employees accountable.
Last week, Mr. Holder told another House panel that he would be willing to sit down with Mr. Boehner to try to work out a solution that would let the documents be reviewed but wouldn't impinge on the executive branch's deliberative process.
That testimony last week, before the House Judiciary Committee, was the eighth time Mr. Holder has come before Congress and talked about Fast and Furious, and the administration says it already has turned over more than 7,000 pages of documents.
Mr. Issa's staff, however, says Mr. Holder and the department have battled at every turn to withhold information. Mr. Issa has accused top officials of a pattern of misleading — culminating in the letter that the department had to withdraw in December after the committee's investigation showed its claims to be untrue.
The House is on recess this week, so contempt proceedings will move forward next week. It will be the first time the Obama administration has faced contempt of Congress proceedings.
House Democrats approved a contempt resolution against former White House lawyer Harriet Miers in 2008, seeking an interview with her on her role in the firings of U.S. attorneys. She refused an on-the-record sworn interview with congressional investigators.
The House voted 223-32 to hold her in contempt. Most Republicans boycotted the vote.
At the same time, former White House political adviser Karl Rove was refusing to be interviewed by the House Judiciary Committee. That matter never reached the House floor.
In 2009, after President George W. Bush left office, Democrats and former Bush officials reached an agreement to produce documents and on-the-record testimony.
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