WASHINGTON - The U.S. House will vote Thursday on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents involving the failed Fast and Furious weapons crackdown.
"We're going to proceed," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday. "We've given them ample opportunity to reply."
Late Wednesday, the House Rules Committee approved the procedure for Thursday's debate and vote, which could bring the unprecedented contempt citation of a sitting attorney general.
The move came the day after House Republicans rejected the latest offer by the White House and Justice Department to turn over some of the documents sought by congressional investigators.
Administration and justice officials met Tuesday with senior aides to Boehner and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, to try to head off the House vote.
However, a senior House Republican aide said an offer to let congressional investigators see some of the requested documents in return for dropping the contempt measure was insufficient.
A group of House Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, said it was planning to walk out of the House chamber on Thursday and boycott the vote.
In a letter to House members that was still being circulated late Wednesday for signatures, the Democrats opposed to voting on the GOP-sponsored resolutions said, "Contempt power should be used sparingly, carefully and only in the most egregious situations. The Republican Leadership has articulated no legislative purpose for pursuing this course of action. For these reasons we cannot and will not participate in a vote to hold the Attorney General in contempt."
The letter went on to say the signers would refuse to participate in any vote that "would tarnish the image of Congress or of an Attorney General who has done nothing but work tirelessly to protect the rights of the American people. We must reflect upon why we are elected to this body and choose now to stand up for justice."
A senior Democratic aide told CNN that, in addition to the Black Caucus, which includes more than 40 members, the Hispanic Caucus, the Asian-Pacific American Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus may also participate. It was unclear whether any Democratic leaders would join the boycott.
The move would mirror a similar walkout by House Republicans in 2008, when Democrats, who then controlled the House, voted to hold two top Bush Administration officials in contempt of Congress.
The ranking Democrat on the oversight committee called Wednesday for Boehner to try to work out a solution with Holder instead of holding a vote on Thursday. "Why are we steamrolling ahead on a matter of such gravity?" asked Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. "In my opinion the answer is plain and simple: politics."
There was no word Wednesday whether Cummings would participate in the planned boycott.
In a letter to Boehner, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked him to reconsider his decision to bring the contempt citation to the floor.
"Holding the nation's top law-enforcement officer in contempt of Congress would be a drastic, disproportionate action on the part of this body," she wrote.
President Barack Obama has asserted executive privilege on some documents in the dispute, preventing them from being turned over on grounds they include internal deliberations traditionally protected from outside eyes.
At Tuesday's meeting, the Justice Department also offered to conduct a briefing, give Congress documents related to whistle-blowers in the case and work with the committee to respond to any questions it may have had after reviewing the materials.
"This was a good-faith effort to try to reach an accommodation while still protecting the institutional prerogatives of the executive branch, often championed by these same Republicans criticizing us right now," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told CNN. "Unfortunately, Republicans have opted for political theater rather than conduct legitimate congressional oversight."
Boehner, however, said Wednesday that a failure to cooperate by the Obama administration had forced House Republicans to take up the contempt measure.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee last week recommended citing Holder.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapons purchases by Mexican drug cartels. It followed similar programs started in the Bush administration.
However, Fast and Furious lost track of more than 1,000 firearms it was tracking in the operation, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Issa and Republicans contend that Holder and the Justice Department are concealing details of how Operation Fast and Furious was approved and managed.
Democrats argue that Issa and his GOP colleagues are using the issue to try to score political points by discrediting Holder and, by extension, the president