WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration and House Republicans refused to find a middle ground in a dispute over documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation, and the GOP plunged ahead with plans for precedent-setting votes Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in civil and criminal contempt of Congress.
The votes are expected hours after the Supreme Court will capture the nation's attention with its ruling on the legality of President Barack Obama's health care law. Even without that diversion, the contempt issue throws both parties temporarily off-track in their efforts to focus on the economy in an election year.
There's little question that Republicans will get the votes they need, not only from their own majority but from Democrats aligned with the National Rifle Association -- which has said it's keeping score. The NRA has said it believes the administration was using the flawed Operation Fast and Furious to make the case for more gun control.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving House member and normally an NRA supporter, said Wednesday he would not back the contempt resolutions but instead wants the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to conduct a more thorough investigation.
The criminal contempt resolution would send the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder. The civil contempt resolution would allow the House to go to court in an effort to force Holder to turn over documents the Oversight committee wants. In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The House is unlikely to get the documents anytime soon, because President Barack Obama has invoked a broad form of executive privilege, which protects from disclosure internal documents in executive branch agencies.
In nearly three hours of arguments before the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats squared off with oft-repeated arguments that have turned a major constitutional issue into a political food fight.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and chairman of the Oversight panel, told the Rules Committee that the documents sought were essential to learn who in the administration produced a February, 2011 letter denying that Operation Fast and Furious allowed guns to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico. The Justice Department has already given Issa's committee 7,600 pages on the operation itself. The documents now sought covered a period after the operation was shut down.
Referring to Justice Department officials, he asked, "When did they know we were lied to and what did they do about it?" It took 10 months before the administration acknowledged the false information. Issa said he had no evidence that Holder knew of the gun-walking tactics.
Issa also said closure is needed for the family of a U.S. border agent, Brian Terry, who was killed in a firefight with Mexican bandits in 2010. Two guns from Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
The ranking Democrat on Issa's committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, countered, "Why are we rushing" toward the first-ever vote to hold a sitting attorney general in contempt? He said he was certain that the dispute could be worked out.
"It has all the trappings of a witch hunt," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee. She also said, "I don't think there's any way we're doing justice to Brian Terry with what we're doing today."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the public would view the vote as "political theater" and "gamesmanship."
Carney said the Justice Department and the White House on Tuesday had shown House Republicans a representative sample of the documents they were seeking. He said the administration's offer would have provided "unprecedented access" to internal communications about how it responded to congressional inquiries into the Fast and Furious program.
Ironically, the documents at the heart of the current argument are not directly related to the workings of Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed guns to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in hopes they could be tracked. The department has given Issa 7,600 documents on the operation.
Rather, Issa wants internal communications from February 2011, when the administration denied knowledge of gun-walking, to the end of that year, when officials acknowledged the denial was erroneous. Those documents covered a period after Fast and Furious had been shut down.
In Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in the operation.