GOP cries foul over Obama's use of executive privilege in "Fast and Furious" case

Obama, Holder
Attorney General Eric Holder, left, and President Barack Obama.

(CBS News) Wednesday was a dramatic and highly partisan day in Washington with the White House invoking executive privilege for the first time during this administration and a congressional panel voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

Holder, traveling through Copenhagen, just said the contempt vote is "unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented." He still thinks this conflict can be resolved, but right now neither side is showing signs of conceding.

Republicans argued the move was the only way to force Holder to hand over documents they asked for eight months ago.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., asked Holder, "When you keep getting stonewalled... Why? What is it about these documents that's are so sensitive?"

The White House added an extra layer of intrigue by claiming executive privilege over the documents, a tool the administration can use to protect internal discussions.

What is executive privilege?

Where Republicans see a cover-up, Democrats see a witch hunt. Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said, "It's painful to sit here and watch it turn into a partisan political theater."

Their disagreement centers around an U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation called "Fast and Furious." It allowed traffickers for Mexican drug cartels to buy more than 2,000 weapons from U.S. gun dealers. The goal was to track the guns and take down a major cartel. But it didn't work. Two of the guns were found at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in 2010.

Video: What is "Fast and Furious"?
Video: Holder held in contempt
Video: What is "Fast and Furious"?

Holder has handed over nearly 8,000 pages of documents. But Republicans want more and say the White House use of executive privilege brings up new questions about the documents.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said, "It raises a lot of suspicion about how high up in this administration the decision to have 'Fast and Furious' goes."

(Major Garrett, White House Correspondent for National Journal, discussed the situation in Washington with respect to Holder and the investigation. Watch the video in the player below for his full "CBS This Morning" interview.)

This is the first time President Obama has asserted executive privilege. In 2007, then-Sen. Obama criticized President Bush for the practice.

Obama said on CNN at the time, "There's been a tendency, on the part of this administration, to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there's something a little shaky that's taking place."

Now that a contempt vote is headed to the House floor, former House of Representatives counsel Stanley Brand says he expects both sides to give a little. He said, "There's always this back and forth and some portion or some elements of the documents will be made available to Congress."

If the full House votes in favor of contempt next week, it will be the first time that an administration official from the top levels of the cabinet has been held in contempt. But then, this matter gets handed over to the local U.S. Attorney who is unlikely to do anything with this matter because he's not going to prosecute his own boss, Holder.

  • Nancy Cordes
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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.