The likelihood of a contempt vote rose after Holder and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., failed to reach agreement Tuesday in a 20-minute meeting at the Capitol.
Issa wanted the documents immediately. Holder told reporters he would not turn over documents on the gun-smuggling probe called Operation Fast and Furious unless Issa agreed to another meeting congressional briefing on the Justice Department material. Holder wants an assurance from Issa that the transfer of the records would satisfy a subpoena from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs.
"If we receive no documents, we'll go forward" with a contempt vote, Issa told reporters.
Holder says he is prepared to turn over documents detailing how the department arrived at the conclusion that federal agents engaged in a risky tactic called gun-walking. In February 2011, when the controversy over the law enforcement operation was first disclosed, the department denied that agents had engaged in gun-walking.
"It's a whole variety of material, and it's consistent with what we have already made available — emails, documents of that nature — that really go into the way in which the department handled itself from February of 2011 until December of 2011," Holder told reporters.
Ordinarily, such deliberative documents are off-limits to Congress. In Operation Fast and Furious, the Justice Department's initial incorrect denials are seen as providing justification for Congress' document demands.
Issa and the House Republican leadership have asked whether the department's initial denial in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was part of a broader effort to obstruct a congressional investigation.
The material "pretty clearly demonstrates that there was no intention to mislead, to deceive," Holder told reporters.
"The attorney general has made an unprecedented offer to turn over documents that are part of the Department of Justice's internal deliberations and work product and to brief the committee on their contents," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, one of the committee's Democrats and a former federal prosecutor. "Regrettably, Chairman Issa refuses to take yes for an answer."
"We have offered to make materials available ... to brief on those documents, to answer any questions that might come up with regard to the documents that we produced," the attorney general said.
"The ball's in their court," Holder said. "We made what we thought was an extraordinary offer."
Issa took a different view: "After this meeting I cannot say that I am optimistic" for avoiding a contempt vote.
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said that at the meeting, "the attorney general indicated he would only be willing to produce a subset of documents that numbered fewer than 1,300 pages if the committee would first agree that the production of these documents would end the committee's investigation of the Justice Department."
Issa declined the offer.
In a letter to Issa on Tuesday night, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said "our offer would have provided the committee with unprecedented access to these documents, many of which are not covered by the committee's subpoenas in this matter."