A House panel appeared poised to cast an extraordinary contempt of Congress vote Wednesday against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after a last-ditch meeting on Tuesday failed to produce a compromise on documents sought by lawmakers investigating the gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious.
Holder met for about 20 minutes in a Capitol conference room with a bipartisan group of lawmakers after sending a letter Monday offering to hand over internal documents related to his department's handling of the operation.
Republicans say the documents will show that Justice Department knew more than they've admitted about the operation, in which U.S. agents allowed American guns to be sold across the border in Mexico. One of those guns was used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Holder told reporters after the meeting that Republicans declined his offer to make the materials available. "I think the ball is in their court," Holder said. "They rejected what I thought was an extraordinary offer on our part."
But Republicans emerged from the meeting with a much different story. Holder didn't even bring the promised documents to the meeting, they said. Instead, he pressed Republicans to drop Wednesday's contempt of Congress vote in exchange only for a promise to deliver the documents later.
"He came with an offer of a briefing," said Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "We went through the process of what was being offered and responded as I think we have to, which is the documents they may choose to give us in the future we need to have before tomorrow."
The meeting followed days of exchanges between Issa and Holder that heightened expectations that they would reach agreement on which documents Holder would turn over. The meeting itself dashed those expectations.
Issa's panel is set to vote on the contempt charge against Holder on Wednesday, and with 22 Republicans and 16 Democrats on the committee, approval of the charge is virtually guaranteed. A contempt of Congress vote, while rare, is a politically charged process that carries a jail sentence and fine.
The committee vote would not necessarily end Holder's chance to strike a deal with House Republicans over the documents. Holder wouldn't be prosecuted until the full House declared him in contempt.
It's not clear when, or if the full House would act. House Republican leaders are eager to avoid a contempt vote, fearing it would be a huge distraction from their election year message that President Obama and Democrats have failed to fix the economy.
Those leaders have expressed support for Issa's investigation into Fast and Furious but have not specifically promised a contempt vote by the full House.
Issa told reporters that Holder can still provide the documents before his committee meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday, but Holder signaled he was done negotiating.
"The offer that we made is still outstanding," Holder said.
The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who attended Tuesday's meeting, defended Holder, saying the attorney general wants to end the Republican inquiry into his department's handling of Fast and Furious. That investigation has already gone on more than a year and included more than 7,600 documents from Justice.
"He keeps producing documents," Cummings said of Holder. "But the goalpost keeps changing."