WASHINGTON — A House committee voted along party lines to find Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to provide subpoenaed documents in the flawed Fast and Furious gun-tracking case, just hours after President Obama for the first time asserted executive privilege and backed the attorney general's refusal to release the material.
The developments Wednesday set up a political standoff going into the November election and a significant constitutional clash between the White House and Congress that may not be resolved until after a lengthy journey through the courts.
The legal conflict was quickly subsumed by the intense partisanship that has characterized relations between the Obama White House and the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans asserted that Obama was covering up White House involvement in Fast and Furious, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives surveillance operation that lost track of guns that ultimately were used in crimes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats said Republicans were engaged in a "witch hunt."
Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole said the Justice Department had already "substantially complied" with the subpoena.
He said the additional documents requested "pertain to sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions, or were generated by department officials in the course of responding to congressional investigations or media inquiries about this matter that are generally not appropriate for disclosure."
But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it had "uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice Department. That wrongdoing has cost lives on both sides of the border."
If the full House votes next week to hold Holder in contempt, it would be only the fifth time since 1980 that the House has taken such a step against a current or former administration official.
Political analysts said they thought the issue would have limited effect on the presidential campaign.
"This is the kind of thing that reinforces rather than changes existing views," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist. "The people who dislike the president will find his decision obdurate and defensive. The people who like the president will find his decision perfectly well justified."
Most, however, will probably be focused elsewhere. "There will be nothing that we can possibly see on the horizon at this point that is going to supplant the economy as the overriding issue in this election," Ayres said.
Even some Republicans conceded that they needed to keep the focus on the economy in the campaign and not get distracted.
"Do I think that's going to be the major issue of the campaign or that we should shift focus as that should be our major message? Absolutely not," Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) told a television interviewer.
All 23 Republicans on the committee voted for finding Holder in contempt, and all 17 Democrats voted against the resolution.
Rep.Carolyn B. Maloney(D-N.Y.) said she was "extremely disgusted" with the committee's action.
"I am horrified you are going through with this contempt charge," she said. "This shouldn't be a witch hunt."
Holder, in a statement, called the vote "extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary" and said it was designed "to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch."
The attorney general added: "This divisive action does not help us fix the problems" with illegal gun trafficking or protecting the public and law enforcement on the border.
According to the Obama White House, PresidentGeorge W. Bushasserted executive privilege six times during his two terms, and President Clinton 14 times during his eight years in Washington.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio), said Obama's decision to insert himself in the matter "implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the coverup that followed."
"The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?" he added.
At the White House on Wednesday, communications director Dan Pfeiffer sharply criticized House Republicans for taking up time with Fast and Furious. "Instead of creating jobs or strengthening the middle class, congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition," he said.
But the Mitt Romney presidential campaign replied that Obama's executive privilege claim showed he never intended for his administration to be transparent. "Just another broken promise," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats, said the Republicans might have better luck obtaining the documents by filing a lawsuit. Contempt votes, he said, tend to "evaporate" and are "not legally enforceable in a practical way."
To enforce the contempt holding, the Republicans would normally have to turn to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, who works for Holder.
At issue are 1,300 pages of Justice Department documents from February of last year, when the department first claimed no one in Washington was aware of the Fast and Furious tactics, and from December, when it admitted there was some knowledge.
On Tuesday evening, Holder offered to allow committee members to review some of the material because he said it would answer some of their questions. But Issa said Holder also said that the committee must drop its intention to vote for contempt first. At that point, their talks broke down.
Fast and Furious was run by Arizona agents with the ATF. It began in fall 2009, and ended a month after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010 south of Tucson.
The goal of the operation was to allow illegal gun sales on the border so agents could track the firearms to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Instead, some of the weapons were lost and many turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.
Two of the weapons were recovered after the Terry slaying, and his family said in a statement Wednesday that after 18 months they still did not have answers about his death. Obama's privilege claim, they said, "denies the Terry family and the American people the truth."
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli, Richard Simon and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.