Washington (CNN) — An extraordinary House committee hearing debated a contempt measure against Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday even though President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over some documents sought by the panel investigating the botched Fast and Furious gun-running sting.
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the White House assertion of executive privilege “falls short” of any reason to delay the hearing.
However, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, accused Issa of setting an “impossible standard” for Holder by initially demanding documents the attorney general is legally prohibited from providing.
Now Issa has “no interest in resolving” the dispute with Holder, Cummings said.
After more than three hours of statements by committee members, the panel went into recess to allow members to take part in votes on the House floor. It then reconvened to consider amendments and vote on the contempt measure.
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If approved, the measure would then go to the full House for consideration in what would be an unprecedented event — Congress holding a sitting attorney general in contempt.
Wednesday’s developments further heightened the drama of a high-profile showdown between Issa and Holder over the committee’s demand for the Department of Justice to turn over more documents about the Fast and Furious program.
The White House move means the Department of Justice can withhold some of the documents from the House Oversight Committee, which was scheduled to consider a contempt measure Wednesday against Holder.
In a letter to Obama seeking the assertion of executive privilege, Holder said the documents involved related to the Justice Department’s “response to congressional oversight and related media inquiries,” and that release of internal executive branch documents would have “significant, damaging consequences.”
Holder also said releasing the documents would “inhibit the candor of executive branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the ability of the executive branch to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight.”
A separate Justice Department letter to Issa made public minutes before Wednesday’s committee meeting was scheduled to begin said Obama “has asserted executive privilege over the relevant post-February 4, 2011, documents.”
“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,” said the letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “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.”
See Holder’s letter requesting privilege (.PDF)
The hearing started 20 minutes late as panel members digested Cole’s letter, and Issa immediately made clear he intended to hold a vote on the contempt measure.
In particular, Issa’s committee wants documents that show why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.
Holder said he offered to turn over some of the documents sought by Issa when they met Tuesday in a final effort to resolve the dispute before Wednesday’s hearing. Issa, however, said Holder put unreasonable conditions on his offer/
In a letter to Issa after Tuesday’s meeting, Cole reiterated Holder’s position that the documents would show Holder had nothing to hide about his role in Fast and Furious.
Cole noted that the lone point of dispute was whether the February 4, 2011, letter was part of a broader effort to obstruct a congressional investigation.
“The answer to that question is an emphatic ‘no’ and we have offered the committee the opportunity to satisfy itself that that is so,” Cole wrote.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapon purchases by Mexican drug cartels. However, it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms that the agency had allowed straw buyers to carry across the border, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Issa and other Republicans on the panel mentioned Terry’s death by name in accusing Holder and the Justice Department of trying to stonewall the investigation of what happened.
“The Department of Justice has fought this investigation every step of the way,” Issa said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, complained that subpoenas for documents remained unresolved eight months later.
“We have not gotten to the bottom of this, and Brian Terry was killed in December of 2010,” Chaffetz said.
Terry’s family issued a statement Wednesday that called for all of the documents sought by the committee to be turned over.
“Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious,” the statement said.
Cummings and other Democrats challenged the Republican contention of stonewalling by Holder, saying political motivations are at play.
“It shouldn’t be a political witch hunt against the attorney general and the president in an election year,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.
The Tuesday meeting between Issa and Holder amounted to little more than a reiteration of the positions the two staked out in an exchange of letters the previous week, and Issa said afterward the committee would proceed with its contempt vote if Holder failed to turn over the documents in question.
Holder told reporters that he offered to provide the documents on the condition that Issa gave his assurance that doing so would satisfy two committee subpoenas and resolve the dispute.
“They rejected what I thought was an extraordinary offer on our part.,” Holder said. Asked about whether Issa was open to resolving the issue before the committee meets Wednesday, Holder said: “I think we actually are involved more in political gamesmanship” instead of a sincere effort to get the requested documents.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans repeatedly called for Holder to turn over all the documents sought by the committee.
The subpoenas issued last year originally cited a broad array of documents, including wiretap requests and other materials involving confidential sources that Holder argued he was prevented by law from supplying. Issa narrowed the request in negotiations with Holder in recent weeks.
“Either we have the right to the documents and we should get all of them, or we have no business here,” shouted Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
However, Democrats argued the documents demanded by Issa related to internal discussions about responding to the Fast and Furious investigation, rather than the committee’s intended purpose of finding out who authorized the failed program.
“There is nothing in this remaining set that has anything to do with how gun-walking happened and how it is going to be reformed,” said Rep. John Tierney, D-Massachusetts. “That’s what we promised the (Terry) family — to find out how it happened, which we have done, and then we promised them reform, which we are not doing.”
The party-line division in the panel extended to the portrayal of the Tuesday meeting attended by Holder, Issa, Cummings and others.
Issa and Republicans rejected the conditions of Holder’s offer, while Cummings and Democrats said the panel should work with Holder to seek a resolution instead of voting now on what would be the unprecedented contempt citation of a sitting attorney general.
Another person at Tuesday’s meeting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, said afterward that he supports Holder and appreciates “that he is going the extra mile to resolve this.”
However, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also participated in the meeting, said Holder was seeking to get cleared before he actually turned over any of the requested information.
“We thought we’d get the documents and we got zilch,” Grassley told CNN on Wednesday.
While such disputes have long been part of the interaction between Congress and the government, the public showdown between Holder and Issa — coming in the politically charged atmosphere of an election year — raised the stakes on an already volatile issue.
Issa has accused the attorney general of stonewalling an investigation into Fast and Furious and how the Justice Department provided Congress with erroneous information about it. The department says it already has handed over more than 7,000 pages of records to House investigators, and that the remaining material Issa wants could jeopardize criminal prosecutions.
The back-and-forth letters exchanged between Holder and Issa before Tuesday’s meeting revealed an incremental negotiation over what the committee wanted and what the Department of Justice was willing to provide.
CNN’s Terry Frieden, Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.