A U.S. congressional panel voted on Wednesday to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress after the Obama administration 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 move set up a new confrontation between Democratic President Barack Obama and Congress.
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.
Republicans were already taking advantage of the moment to portray the president as a participant in a cover-up, just as congressional Democrats did when they fought with President George W. Bush over that 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 Department of Justice," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
He added, "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."
Presidents since Richard Nixon have claimed executive privilege to protect internal documents and conversations in similar disputes with Congress with varying results, as the courts have never given presidents any absolute authority to defy subpoenas from Congress.
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.
Issa and other Republicans on the panel accused the Justice Department that Holder heads of stonewalling and trying to protect its political appointees from potentially embarrassing revelations about the botched gun-running probe.
"The frustration of this committee in not getting documents for a year and a half must be satisfied today," Issa said.
The "Fast and Furious" operation 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 violent Mexican drug cartels. A similar operation was conducted during Bush's administration.
U.S. agents lost track of many of the weapons, which later were involved in crimes, including the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Fast and Furious ran from late 2009 until early 2011.
Word of the fumbled operation prompted Congress to investigate the Obama administration's handling of it.
Historically, Congress has had considerable difficulty enforcing contempt citations and has ultimately relied on negotiated settlements following protracted litigation to get the information it has sought.
Obama and congressional Republicans have battled since January 2011, over everything from budget and tax policy to healthcare, immigration and keeping basic government services running.
Relations between Obama and Republicans in Congress are expected to worsen as the November 6 presidential and congressional elections approach.