WASHINGTON - Setting up a potential constitutional confrontation, a Republican-controlled House panel voted Wednesday to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress, just hours after President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege - for the first time - to withhold documents demanded by the committee.
The party-line vote was 23-17 following hours of caustic debate. The controversy goes next to the full House, where Republican Speaker John Boehner said there would be a vote next week unless there was some resolution in the meantime.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California said that "more than eight months after a subpoena" for the documents - which concern how the Justice Department learned there were problems with an Arizona probe of gun-running into Mexico - Obama's "untimely assertion" of executive privilege was no reason to delay the contempt vote.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., center, adjourns a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, after a committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., sits at far left, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, watches, second from left.
No, it was just political, said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's ranking Democrat. He called the vote "an extreme, virtually unprecedented action based on election-year politics rather than fact."
The last Cabinet member to be cited by a congressional committee for contempt was Attorney General Janet Reno in President Bill Clinton's administration.
That was never brought to a follow-up vote in the full House.
Technically, if the full House approves the Holder contempt citation, there could be a federal criminal case against him, but history strongly suggests the matter won't get that far.
Whether Congress could force the Justice Department to turn over the documents is a basic question. In the Watergate case, the Supreme Court ordered President Richard Nixon to turn over taped conversations to a criminal prosecutor. But in the Nixon case, the justices also found a constitutional basis for claims of executive privilege, leaving the door open for presidents to cite it in future clashes with Congress.