Voting on strictly partisan lines, a House committee recommended Wednesday that Attorney General Eric Holder be cited for contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents relating to the botched Fast and Furious weapons sting operation.
The vote ended an extraordinary daylong hearing that took place after President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over some documents sought by the panel investigating Fast and Furious. The White House move means the Department of Justice can withhold some of the documents.
The committee measure now goes to the full House for consideration, expected next week, of what would be an unprecedented action -- Congress holding a sitting attorney general in contempt.
"Unless the attorney general re-evaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week," said a statement by the chamber's Republican leaders. "If, however, Attorney General Holder produces these documents prior to the scheduled vote, we will give the (committee) an opportunity to review in hopes of resolving this issue."
All 23 Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee supported the contempt measure, while the 17 Democrats opposed it, reflecting the deep political divide on the issue.
Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, refused to put off consideration of the measure, saying the White House assertion of executive privilege "falls short" of any reason to delay the hearing.
However, Issa said after the hearing that he believes a settlement to avoid an unprecedented contempt vote in the House is "in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious."
In a statement later Wednesday, Holder called Issa's decision to hold the vote "an election-year tactic" and "an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch."
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.
Wednesday's developments further heightened the drama of a high-profile showdown between Issa and Holder over the Fast and Furious program that dates back to subpoenas issued by the House committee last year.
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's committee is specifically seeking 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.
The stalemate over the documents escalated dramatically Wednesday.
CNN senior political analyst and former presidential adviser David Gergen said such dusts-ups are usually resolved by political negotiations.That's not been the case here.
"For a lot of Americans who don't understand the complexities and really don't care about the complexity of this, it is one more illustration ... that Washington is broken," Gergen said.
But the impasse also shows something about Holder's resolve, he told "John King USA."
"He's stiffened his spine," Gergen said. "He has been under pressure to resign from some quarters in the Republican Party. He ain't going anywhere."
Now the question is whether a settlement can be reached before the House vote.
If the House finds Holder in contempt, it is unlikely he will be prosecuted for criminal contempt, according to Alan Morrison, associated dean at George Washington University Law School.
"It would look like terrible overreaching to go for criminal contempt," Morrison said, which carries a penalty of $1,000 and up to one year in prison.
Instead, Morrison said, it is more likely the House would pursue civil prosecution in federal court.
The House committee vote came more than six hours after notice that Obama had asserted executive privilege.
In a letter to Obama seeking that action, 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."
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.