House leaders said they will schedule a vote of the entire chamber on the matter next week unless the attorney general turns over certain documents on Operation Fast and Furious. If the full House votes to find Holder in contempt, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — who is employed by the Justice Department — will have to decide whether to criminally prosecute him.
In a statement, Holder called the vote “an election year tactic” and blasted it as “an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch.”
Speaking Thursday from Copenhagen, Denmark, where he is attending meetings with European Union officials, Holder said the administration had given the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee a proposal to negotiate an end to the conflict.
“I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way,” Holder said, according to the Associated Press. “The proposal that we have made is still there. The House, I think, the House leadership, has to consider now what they will do, so we’ll see how it works out.”
The vote against Holder marks only the third time in 30 years that a congressional panel has held an attorney general in contempt. At Wednesday’s often-heated hearing, Republicans railed against the former judge and U.S. attorney, accusing him of repeatedly stonewalling them in their investigation.
Democrats blasted the GOP for allowing the dispute to devolve into personal attacks against Holder.
At its core, the conflict centers on a particular set of documents that the oversight committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), subpoenaed from the Justice Department in October for the investigation he launched into Operation Fast and Furious in the spring of last year.
The operation, named after the popular movie series, was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the legal backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. As part of the operation, ATF agents purposefully did not interdict more than 2,000 weapons they suspected of being purchased at Arizona gun shops by illegal buyers known as “straw purchasers”; agents hoped to later track them to a Mexican drug cartel.
ATF lost track of most of the firearms, some of which have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States. Two of the guns connected to the operation were found at a scene in the Arizona desert where a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed in December 2010.