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WASHINGTON • A U.S. House committee brushed aside President Barack Obama's claim of executive privilege and held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents related to a law enforcement effort to track guns to Mexican drug cartels.
In a party-line vote, the Republican majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel voted to approve the first contempt citation for a Cabinet member in 14 years.
At the start of a hearing, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House panel called the president's action "an untimely" assertion of privilege.
Republicans said Holder failed to comply with a subpoena for documents in the Fast and Furious gun operation, which allowed illegally purchased firearms from the U.S. to wind up in Mexico.
The 23-17 committee vote marks an escalation in a standoff that began last year between Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration. The full House would have to approve the measure before it could refer the case to the U.S. attorney in Washington to determine whether prosecution is warranted for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena.
The House panel is seeking documents describing internal Justice Department discussions about a February 2011 letter to lawmakers that Holder later said mistakenly contained incorrect information.
The Justice Department says it already has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case.
This is the first time Obama has invoked executive privilege, according to the White House.
Executive privilege is a principle that says the executive branch can't be forced by the legislative branch to disclose confidential communications when they would harm operations.
Documents responsive to the House panel's subpoena relate to "sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole in a letter Wednesday to Issa.
Guns in Fast and Furious ended up "lost" and will turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years, Holder told lawmakers last year.
Two of about 2,000 guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a congressional report.
Holder has said he didn't learn of the tactics in the operation until after it was the subject of news reports. Since then, he has banned the use of similar law enforcement methods.
Holder last year told a Senate hearing that he regretted a Feb. 4, 2011 letter the Justice Department sent lawmakers that indicated the ATF hadn't "knowingly allowed" the tactics in the law enforcement operation to be employed. Information in the letter turn out to be inaccurate, he said.
In 1998, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich opted against a floor vote on contempt when the oversight panel cited Attorney General Janet Reno for withholding documents related to a campaign finance investigation.
History of executive privilege use
The White House says presidents have asserted that privilege 25 times since 1980.
Barack Obama • 1
George W. Bush • 6
Bill Clinton • 14
George H.W. Bush • 1
Ronald Reagan • 3