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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted today to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. He's accused of refusing to turn over certain documents related to the controversial gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious.
Just hours before the vote, the White House waded in. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, it invoked executive privilege in an effort to keep those papers secret.
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REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The committee on oversight and government reform will come to order. The committee meets today to consider reporting a resolution to the House of Representatives, finding the Attorney General Eric Holder, Junior, in contempt of Congress.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: And with that, Republican Darrell Issa, the chairman of the committee, opened a raucous hearing that his adversaries say had as much to do with election year politics, as it did with congressional prerogative.
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way. It really didn't.
JOHNSON: That was Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the Oversight Committee, lamenting a breakdown in settlement talks between the Justice Department and Republicans.
The Obama administration has already turned over hundreds of pages, about how Fast and Furious was developed by federal agents and prosecutors in Arizona. Here's the heart of the dispute: What the congressional committee wants and what the administration wants to protect are any internal deliberations at Justice and the White House, starting in February 2011, when they raced to do damage control after they learned details of the botched operation.
California Democrat Jackie Speier.
REPRESENTATIVE JACKIE SPEIER: We're talking about documents, internal documents between staff members within the Justice Department, after a letter was sent on February 4th that was erroneous.
JOHNSON: It's not clear what those documents would show about any high-level conversations at Justice and the White House.
Indiana Republican Dan Burton says the possibilities are tantalizing.
REPRESENTATIVE DAN BURTON: The president's assertion of executive privilege creates even more questions. One of the big issues that we've been dealing with is, who knew about Fast and Furious? When did they know about it? And how high up did it go?
JOHNSON: Speier, the Democrat from California, resisted the old Watergate-era questions.
SPEIER: There's no cover up here. There's no 20-minutes of a tape that's been wiped out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If the gentlewoman would yield.
SPEIER: No, I've already yield.
JOHNSON: And that's how most of the hearing went, as Republicans lambasted the Justice Department for flouting a congressional subpoena and Democrats said their adversaries were trying to score points in an election year.
The contempt issue next goes to the full U.S. House, unless both sides are able to reach a deal before then.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.