By Donna Smith and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel voted on Wednesday to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress after the Obama administration invoked executive privilege for the first time since coming to office, withholding some documents related to a failed gun-running investigation.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on a party-line vote, decided to cite the nation's top law enforcement officer in connection with the operation, code-named "Fast and Furious."
The contempt move set up yet another confrontation between Democratic President Barack Obama and the House, intensifying the bitter partisanship that has prevailed in Washington since just after Obama took office.
With the so-called "fiscal cliff" showdown between the White House and Republicans looming after the November 6 presidential election, the timing could not be worse for another source of friction.
Republican House leaders said they would schedule a vote in the full House next week on the contempt charge. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said if the requested documents were submitted before that vote, it would provide an opportunity to resolve the issue.
In theory, an official charged with contempt could be punished with a fine or jail, but no one expects it to come to that. Weeks or months of controversy feeding into the presidential election campaign is the more likely result.
The "Fast and Furious" operation - similar to one conducted during George W. Bush's administration - was meant to help federal law enforcement agents follow the flow of guns from Arizona into Mexico, where they were thought to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
U.S. agents lost track of many of the weapons, which later were involved in crimes, including the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Republicans on Wednesday already were taking advantage of the moment to portray Obama as a participant in a cover-up, just as congressional Democrats did when they fought with Bush over his administration's refusal to turn over documents relating to the dismissal of a group of federal prosecutors.
QUESTIONING WHITE HOUSE MOVE
"Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding 'Fast and Furious' were confined to the Department of Justice," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
"The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the 'Fast and Furious' operation or the cover-up that followed."
Presidents since Richard Nixon have claimed executive privilege to protect internal documents and conversations in similar disputes with Congress with varying results, as the courts have never given presidents any absolute authority to defy subpoenas from Congress.
Even before the vote, the White House criticized the panel chaired by conservative Representative Darrell Issa.
"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," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.
Holder said in a statement that the Justice Department had been responsive to the panel's demand for information. He accused Issa and other Republicans on the panel of provoking an "avoidable conflict" between Congress and the White House.
"That might make for good political theater but it does little to uncover the truth or address the problems associated with this operation and prior ones dating back to the previous administration," Holder said in the statement.
Issa and other Republicans on the panel said the Justice Department, which Holder heads, was stonewalling and trying to protect its political appointees from potentially embarrassing revelations about the botched gun-running investigation.
"The president's assertion of executive privilege this morning took us by surprise but did not alter the committee's conclusion that documents had been inappropriately withheld," Issa said.
The parents of the slain U.S. border agent released a statement criticizing the executive privilege move and demanded the documents sough by the committee on "Fast and Furious," which ran from late 2009 until early 2011, be produced.
"Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind 'Operation Fast and Furious,'" Terry's parents said.
Word of the bungled operation prompted Congress to investigate the Obama administration's handling of it.
Historically, Congress has had considerable difficulty enforcing contempt citations and has ultimately relied on negotiated settlements following protracted litigation to get the information it has sought.
Obama and congressional Republicans have battled since January 2011 over everything from budget and tax policy to healthcare, immigration and keeping basic government services running.
Relations between Obama and Republicans in Congress are expected to worsen as the November 6 presidential and congressional elections approach.
(Additional reporting by James Vicini, Drew Singer and Laura MacInnis; Editing by Fred Barbash and Bill Trott)