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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress despite a last-minute intervention by President Obama.
By a vote of 23 to 17 after nearly six hours of tense discussion, the bipartisan committee voted for contempt over the Justice Department's decision to withhold documents related to Operation Fast and Furious that were subpoenaed by the committee in their investigation of the failed gunwalking operation.
The votes were sharply divided along partisan lines with all Republicans voting for and all Democrats voting against contempt. The measure now moves to the full House for a vote.
Moments before the hearing, Holder, who was not present for the committee vote, delivered a letter to Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) informing the committee that Obama exerted executive privilege to withhold the documents in question.
"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," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a letter to Issa.
But the president's intervention did not stop Issa from proceeding with Wednesday's vote.
"This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings," Issa said prior to the vote.
Many committee members Wednesday invoked the name of Brian Terry, a border patrol agent killed in Dec. 2010. At the scene of that crime, guns sold in the Fast and Furious operation were recovered. The operation overall was designed to track firearm sales from the United States to Mexican drug cartels, but the government lost track of a majority of the guns sold in the operation.
"Remember the promises that were made in this room to Terry's family. We would not rest until we got to the bottom of this," Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said Wednesday.
"Have the guts, I hope we have the guts and the perseverance to get to the bottom of this," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said, encouraging the government to help get to the bottom of why Fast and Furious failed. "It's not about Attorney General Eric Holder, it's about the Justice Department and justice in America," he added, invoking Terry's name.
Just prior to the vote, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) read a statement released by Terry's family, which read, in part:
For more than 18 months we have been asking our federal government for justice and accountability. The documents sought by the House Oversight Committee and associated with Operation Fast and Furious should be produced and turned over to the committee. 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.
Republicans in Congress have been leading the push to find out what the government knew about the operation and when and why the effort failed.
Issa and Holder met Tuesday night under the auspices of reaching an agreement that would potentially delay the contempt vote. But following the meeting, Issa said Holder merely confirmed the Justice Department would not be delivering the documents and that the vote would proceed as scheduled.
Holder accused Issa of playing politics.
"Given the extraordinary nature of the offer that we made and given the extraordinary way in which we have shared materials to date that I think we are actually involved more in political gamesmanship as opposed to trying to get the information they say they want," Holder said.
Discussion of Holder's contempt vote was sharply divided along partisan lines on the bipartisan committee Wednesday. Ranking Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland (D), defended Holder prior to the vote and accused Issa of refusing to compromise. "It seems to me you had no interest of resolving this issue," Cummings said to Issa.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said she was "offended personally" by Issa calling Holder a liar. "It's disrespectful," Maloney said. "Where have we degenerated to?" Maloney defended Holder, saying he is "prohibited by law from producing" the documents in question.
"I want to apologize to the American people for yet another show of 'gotcha politics' in this body," Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) stated.
But Republicans strongly disagreed.
"Thus far, the cooperation has not been forthcoming," Issa said of the Justice Department. "We and the American people need answers sooner, not later."
"Mr. Holder is either not telling the truth or he's grossly incompetent," Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Wednesday. Labrador once again called for Holder's resignation.
Holder issued a defiant statement following the committee's action, taking aim at Issa and other detractors whom Holder accused of being motivated by politics.
"This divisive action does not help us fix the problems that led to this operation or previous ones and it does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer. It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention -- and, as a result -- has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people," Holder said.
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced following Wednesday's vote that they plan schedule the full House vote for the week of June 25.
Olivier Knox contributed to this report.