A congressional panel voted on Wednesday to charge US Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress after the administration of US President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time since coming to office, withholding some documents related to a failed gun-running investigation.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on a party-line vote, decided to cite the nation’s top law enforcement officer in connection with the operation, code-named “Fast and Furious.”
The contempt move set up yet another confrontation between Obama and the House, intensifying the bitter partisanship that has prevailed in Washington since just after Obama took office.
With the so-called “fiscal cliff” showdown between the White House and Republicans looming after the Nov. 6 presidential election, the timing could not be worse for another source of friction.
Republican House leaders said they would schedule a vote in the full House next week on the contempt charge. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said if the requested documents were submitted before that vote, it would provide an opportunity to resolve the issue.
In theory, an official charged with contempt could be punished with a fine or jail, but no one expects it to come to that. Weeks or months of controversy feeding into the presidential election campaign is the more likely result.
The “Fast and Furious” operation — similar to one conducted during former US president George W. Bush’s administration — was meant to help federal law enforcement agents follow the flow of guns from Arizona into Mexico, where they were thought to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
US agents lost track of many of the weapons, which later were involved in crimes, including the killing of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Republicans on Wednesday already were taking advantage of the moment to portray Obama as a participant in a cover-up, just as congressional Democrats did when they fought with Bush over his administration’s refusal to turn over documents relating to the dismissal of a group of federal prosecutors.
“Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding ‘Fast and Furious’ were confined to the [US] Department of Justice,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the ‘Fast and Furious’ operation or the cover-up that followed.”
Even before the vote, the White House criticized the panel, chaired by conservative Representative Darrell Issa.
“Instead of creating jobs or strengthening the middle-class, congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.
Terry’s parents released a statement criticizing the executive privilege move.
“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,’” Terry’s parents said.