House Speaker John A. Boehner demanded Thursday that the Obama administration give in and turn over to a congressional committee documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation, insisting that is the only way to stop a House vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.
Boehner, R-Ohio, took a hard line against the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. despite a willingness by House Republicans and Holder to negotiate a settlement before the matter becomes a constitutional crisis. The president has invoked executive privilege, a legal principle used to avoid disclosure of internal presidential documents.
Boehner injected a human element into the dispute over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. He said the family of slain border agent Brian Terry deserved answers about the guns that killed him.
Two guns that were allowed to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in the failed effort to track weapons were found near Terry after he was killed.
"The Terry family deserves answers about why their son was killed as a result of an operation run by the United States government," Boehner said.
During the 18-month investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Justice Department turned over 7,600 documents about details of Fast and Furious. But because the department initially denied and then admitted it used a risky investigative technique known as "gun-walking," the committee has turned its attention to how the department responded to the investigation. The additional documents it seeks are about that topic.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers.
The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Fast and Furious, including the ones found near Terry.
House Democrats gave no ground. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California accused Republicans of pursuing Holder in retaliation for his effort to stop suppression of voters in the upcoming elections. "I'm telling you, this is connected," she told reporters.
Holder, in Copenhagen, Denmark, for meetings with European Union officials, said the administration had given the committee a proposal to negotiate an end to the conflict over the documents.
"I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way," Holder said. "The proposal that we have made is still there. The House, I think, the House leadership, has to consider now what they will do, so we'll see how it works out."
But he called the contempt vote "unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said there was "absolutely" no cover-up on the Fast and Furious controversy. He said executive privilege was asserted only on internal deliberations and "that is separate from trying to find out the truth about this operation."
Democrats contended that the 23-17 party-line contempt vote in committee Wednesday was just political theater.