(Fox News) – Rep. Darrell Issa pressed ahead with a committee vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, despite an 11th-hour move by President Obama to exert executive privilege over the Fast and Furious documents at the heart of the dispute.
The announcement instantly touched off a caustic debate on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as Democrats accused Issa of prosecuting a “political witch hunt” and Republicans stepped up their criticism of Holder’s “stonewalling” over the Fast and Furious probe. Even for Washington, the tone at the hearing was decidedly bitter and accusatory.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was first informed of the president’s decision to exert executive privilege in a letter Wednesday morning, shortly before the contempt vote was scheduled.
Issa said committee staff are evaluating the letter but described the move as too little, too late as he and other GOP lawmakers questioned the basis for the assertion.
“This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” Issa said.
Issa accused the Justice Department of trying to compel the committee to close its investigation in exchange for documents it hasn’t yet seen. “I can’t accept that deal. No other committee chairman would,” he said.
But Issa’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., fired back that Holder never made such a demand — a Justice official also refuted Issa’s claim — and said the attorney general had come to the committee in “good faith” to try and work out an agreement.
Cummings said the upcoming contempt vote has “diminished” the prestige of the panel. “For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” he said, addressing Issa. “Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way. It really didn’t.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., added that she was “horrified” by the panel’s looming vote, calling it a “political witch hunt” and accusing Republicans of “overruling” the president.
If the vote proceeds, Republicans have more than enough votes on committee to pass the contempt resolution. However, Holder would not be considered held in contempt of Congress unless and until the full House approves the measure.
The move by Holder and Obama to lock down some requested documents only complicates the fight over the botched anti-gunrunning operation between the legislative and executive branches.
After Holder made the request to Obama via letter on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Wednesday informing him that the president has granted the request.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee’s concerns and to accommodate the committee’s legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious,” Cole wrote. “Although we are deeply disappointed that the committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the department remains willing to work with the committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.”
Obama’s decision pertains to documents from February 2011 and afterward examining how Justice officials learned about the Fast and Furious probe.
Holder, in his letter to Obama requesting he assert executive privilege, said those documents pertain to the “deliberative process” on how to respond to congressional and media inquiries.
Wednesday’s developments follow a flurry of activity Tuesday, as Holder tried to negotiate a way to avert the contempt proceedings. Issa had earlier indicated a willingness to postpone the vote after Holder indicated a willingness to make compromises and supply some documents in response to House Republicans’ subpoena.
But Issa told reporters after a roughly 20-minute meeting with Holder Tuesday that the attorney general instead briefed them on the documents in lieu of delivering them.
Issa told Fox News that Holder didn’t provide “anything in writing,” and said the family of murdered Border Patrol agent Brian Terry wants the documents as much as he does.
“We want the documents. Brian Terry’s family would like the documents that are responsive to how in fact their son was gunned down with weapons that came from lawful dealers but at the … behest of the Justice Department,” Issa told Fox News. Weapons from the Fast and Furious anti-gunrunning operation were found at Terry’s murder scene.
Issa further said during the committee meeting Wednesday that the purpose of the probe “has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt.” He said the committee had an aide on Capitol Hill all night in the hope that the Justice Department might send over documents to the panel.
The failed Fast and Furious operation attempted selling thousands of guns to arms dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border to trace them to leaders of drug cartels. However, many of them showed up in crime scenes.
Congressional investigators have been trying to determine if and when high-level Justice officials knew about problems with the operation.
Holder said Issa rejected what he thought was “an extraordinary offer.” Holder called for the Capitol Hill meeting late Monday in a possible attempt to make a deal with Issa and avoid the contempt vote.
“We offered the documents that we thought would resolve the subpoenas,” he said. “The ball is in their court.”
The contempt vote in the oversight committee will likely pass considering Republicans outnumber Democrats 22 to 16.
GOP House leadership has given Issa the green light to proceed how he sees fit, sources told Fox News, which suggests the vote would reach the House floor.
Issa had demanded to see a trove of documents on the controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation. He also wants to know who prepared a now-retracted letter from Feb. 4, 2011, in which the department claimed the U.S. did not knowingly help smuggle guns to Mexico, including those found where Terry was killed.
Issa wrote back to Holder later Monday requesting he deliver roughly 1,300 documents pertaining to the Feb. 4 letter. The letter also stated Holder needed to deliver a description of all the documents he will not produce.