WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said on Tuesday that he would move forward with a contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder unless Holder turns over documents by Wednesday morning involving a botched operation to track guns smuggled to Mexico.
Holder said after meeting Issa late on Tuesday afternoon that he thought he had made a fair offer to provide documents and a briefing to the committee.
“The ball is in their court,” Holder said. “They rejected what I thought was an extraordinary offer on our part.”
He said the Justice Department would provide the materials and answer questions about them as long as the committee considered that as satisfying its earlier subpoena.
Any committee decision on contempt would have to be approved by the full House of Representatives to have any legal force.
Issa said he hoped to receive the documents as early as Tuesday night. “If we can evaluate them even partially then that would give us grounds to negotiate a postponement and perhaps a final resolution,” Issa said.
Issa said the panel would move forward if documents were not submitted by the deadline.
In the meantime, however, Issa and his Republican allies are succeeding in keeping the controversy alive in the media, with suggestions that Holder and the Obama administration may have something to hide by not producing more information on the Justice Department’s handling of an operation, called “Fast and Furious,” to track Mexican gun-smuggling.
The latest move continues a potentially embarrassing election-year showdown with congressional Republicans for President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been under fire for about 18 months over the botched operation.
“Fast and Furious” was meant to determine how thousands of guns were being smuggled from Arizona to violent Mexican drug cartels. But U.S. government agents lost track of many of the weapons.
The operation, which ran from late 2009 until early 2011, came to light after two weapons from it were found in Arizona in December 2010 near the scene of a shootout with illegal immigrants that killed U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Issa has subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents relating to the operation. For months, he has been in a tussle with the Justice Department over the release of those internal documents.
Holder has testified before Issa’s panel about the case and has maintained that he was cooperating with requests to deliver a sizable amount of internal communications.
Issa accused the Justice Department of not acting quickly enough and scheduled the contempt vote for Wednesday.
A contempt of Congress vote by a committee is used to compel a witness to provide information or documents being sought. If the matter escalates to the full House of Representatives, it can result in the accused person being found guilty of a misdemeanor. The likelihood of this happening to Holder is considered extremely slim.
Holder in an earlier letter to Issa said the department was willing to provide a subset of documents detailing how the department learned about the operation after February 4, 2011, and about whistleblower accusations.
Holder has said an “extraordinary accommodation” was being made by the Justice Department to bring the conflict with the committee to a close.
Reporting By Donna Smith; Editing by Fred Barbash and Philip Barbara