President Obama invoked executive privilege Wednesday to block congressional access to Justice Department documents on a failed gun-tracking operation even as a House committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
In an indication of just how fast the showdown was escalating, House Speaker John Boehner quickly announced that the full House would vote on the charge next week, raising the possibility of Holder becoming the first attorney general ever held in contempt of Congress.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday approved a contempt charge against Holder along party lines, with all 23 Republicans voting for it and 17 Democrats voting against it.
Boehner, R-Ohio, who had been working to avoid an election-year contempt vote in the full House, pledged to hold that vote as soon as possible if Holder doesn't turn over the documents concerning the Fast and Furious gun-trading operation.
"Despite being given multiple opportunities to provide the documents necessary for Congress's investigation into Fast and Furious, Attorney General Holder continues to stonewall," Boehner said in a joint statement with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
A House vote would almost certainly go against Holder since Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House. If approved by the House, the charge would be turned over to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen Jr., who once worked for Holder and who replaced Holder in that job.
The committee vote Wednesday followed hours of an intense partisan debate over the contempt resolution, only the second such charge ever leveled against the nation's top law enforcement officer by a congressional committee. President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, was found in contempt by the same panel in 1998, but the matter went no further.
It is exceedingly rare for anyone to be punished for contempt of Congress. The last time was in 1983, when a Republican Environmental Protection Agency official was found guilty of lying to Congress and sentenced to six months' probation and a $10,000 fine.
Wednesday's contempt vote was held despite a last-minute effort by the White House to block the release of the documents lawmakers wanted by invoking executive privilege. It was the first time Obama invoked the privilege and it allowed Holder to legally withhold the documents. But it only further angered Republicans who accused Holder of stonewalling their yearlong investigation into Fast and Furious.
"This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings," Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said as he opened Wednesday's hearing.
Boehner's office suggested Obama's assertion of executive privilege indicates that the president himself may have known about Fast and Furious, because the privilege applies only when the president has direct involvement in the matter. Obama has denied knowing about the operation, in which U.S. agents allowed thousands of guns to be sold across the Mexican border.
Boehner's office noted that the courts could still reject Obama's assertion of privilege.
"The White House spinners face a difficult choice," a Boehner aide said. "Either this privilege claim is a specious political stunt that the courts will reject, or top White House aides were involved either in Fast and Furious itself or the cover-up. Not a good choice."