As the House of Representatives moved closer to a vote to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt in the clash over the probe into the Fast and Furious affair, the two sides Thursday were still seeking a deal short of all-out constitutional warfare.
With President Obama having asserted executive privilege to block congressional investigators and the White House and congressional Republicans having staked out sharply clashing opening arguments, there were signs the real legal wrangling could begin.
White House spokesman Jay Carney mixed offers to work for an agreement with comments dismissing the House probe into the botched Justice Department gunrunning operation on the Mexico border as an “election-year fishing expedition.”
At the same time, “I can tell you we certainly would like to resolve this if there is a good-faith desire to resolve this on the part of House Republicans,” Mr. Carney told reporters Thursday.
A day after Mr. Obama claimed executive privilege over some Justice Department documents sought by House Republicans, Mr. Carney described the probe as a “politically motivated, taxpayer-funded, election-year fishing expedition” and “an attempt to score political points.”
But House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama’s use of executive privilege in his administration’s refusal to turn over documents was proof the White House is involved in a cover-up.
“The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth,” Mr. Boehner told reporters. “So what is the Obama administration hiding in Fast and Furious?”
Mr. Holder, in Copenhagen for meetings with European Union officials, told reporters he still believes “the possibility still exists that” a compromise can be reached.
“I think the House leadership has to consider now what they will do, so we’ll see how it works out,” he said.
Legal experts said that all that sound and fury in Washington and the threat of a showdown between the two branches may signify little more than legal positioning at this point.
“Since there is no realistic process for enforcement of these [contempt] subpoenas, it is really just a shouting match between the branches,” said Stan Brand, a former House counsel who often represents members of Congress in legal matters.
An option for House Republicans serious about holding Mr. Holder in contempt for refusing to comply with subpoenas would be to pass a resolution authorizing a civil suit in district court, as Democrats did against White House counsel Harriet Miers during the controversy over the George W. Bush administration’s firings of a number of U.S. attorneys.
“The problem with that is it’s a long arduous and unpredictable process that will take it off the front page for two years,” Mr. Brand said.
During the year-and-a half long investigation by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Justice Department turned over 7,600 documents about details of Operation 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 Justice Department responded to the investigation. The additional documents it seeks are about that topic.
Mr. Carney insisted the attorney general has made repeated good-faith efforts to comply with the House committee’s investigation, including testifying eight times, and that every document relating specifically to the gunrunning operation itself “has long since been provided.” He said that includes any documents that might show whether anyone at the White House knew about Fast and Furious before it was disclosed publicly. Mr. Carney could not provide an estimate of how many pages are involved.
The White House spokesman said the president asserted executive privilege to maintain the executive branch’s independence, which he said has been done by administrations of both parties going back at least 30 years.
“This is entirely about principle,” Mr. Carney said. “Our assertions are consistent with those of prior administrations. The issue here is about after-the-fact, internal documents that have to do with the executive branch’s ability” to respond to congressional and media inquiries.
Republicans rejected the White House’s legal interpretation of the president’s need to assert executive privilege, the first time Mr. Obama has done so.
“Is the president asserting the presidential communication privilege, which applies only to documents involving communications with the White House?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “If so, then the Justice Department should turn over the vast majority of the documents, which would not be protected by that privilege.”
Mr. Boehner called the administration’s refusal to cooperate fully with a committee subpoena “a very serious matter.”
“Until yesterday, it was just the Department of Justice that we were concerned about,” he said. “Clearly at the 11th hour and 50th minute, the White House decided to inject themselves into this where there had been no indication that a White House had been involved at all.”
Mr. Carney defended Mr. Holder as the person who put an end to the Fast and Furious program, which involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms allowing firearms to be sent by straw buyers to Mexico to track purchases by drug cartels. The agency lost track of more than 1,000 firearms, and two of the lost weapons were found at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
“We have been absolutely clear about the fact that this operation used a tactic that originated in a field office, that was flawed, that was wrong and had terrible consequences … and should not have been employed,” Mr. Carney said.
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.