Washington: A US House of Representatives panel on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over failure to hand over documents related to a botched illegal weapons sting operation.
In a vote divided along party lines, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23-17 to hold Holder in contempt. All 23 Republicans on the committee voted for the contempt resolution, while all 17 Democrats voted against it, Xinhua reported.
The resolution to place Holder in contempt will now move to the Republican-controlled House. It only requires a simple majority to pass. House Speaker John Boehner has said he would schedule a vote next week.
President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege earlier Wednesday over documents sought by the panel, setting up the stage for a possible legal battle in an election year between the executive branch and the House Republicans over the investigation into the sting known as Operation Fast and Furious.
In a letter announcing the White House decision, Deputy Attorney General James Cole argued that the Justice Department made "extraordinary efforts to accommodate the committee`s legitimate oversight interests”. But Committee chairman Darrell Issa said it didn`t warrant delaying the vote.
If the measure against Holder passes the House, it would be sent to the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, who would convene a grand jury to decide whether to indict Holder. The attorney general would face a maximum sentence of one year in prison if convicted by a jury.
House Democrats are outraged by the vote. Democrats on the committee panned Issa for the way he conducted the investigation, while the Congressional Tri-Caucus condemned the move as "politics at its worst”.
The caucus consists of nearly 80 members, mostly Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).
"What the American people are witnessing today is politics at its worst," said Judy Chu, chairwoman of CAPAC. "As we inch closer and closer to the 2012 election, Congressional Republicans are trying to blemish the career of a respected public servant in an attempt to discredit the Administration."
Operation Fast and Furious involved agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), allowing illegal sales of guns, believed to be destined for Mexican drug cartels, to slip into Mexico, so that they can track sellers and purchasers. But after weapons used in the murder of Mexicans and Americans were traced back to the program, it was denounced as a failure.
Issa wants documents that he says would show how much Justice knows about Fast and Furious. Holder has insisted he did not know of the operation. Obama also denied knowledge of Fast and Furious.