A House committee announced Monday it will consider a measure next week to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to provide requested information on the department's handling of the "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling sting operation.
The House Oversight Committee will consider the contempt citation on June 20, said a statement by the panel. A vote by the panel could occur that day, and the measure would then require approval from the full chamber.
Monday's announcement escalates a high-stakes, election-year face-off over what Republicans say is Holder's failure to respond to a subpoena for Justice documents on the botched operation.
In the statement, committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said the panel wants documents that explain why Holder and the Justice Department decided months later to retract a February 4, 2011, letter to Congress that denied any knowledge by senior officials of improper tactics in the gun-running sting.
"Specifically, the Justice Department has refused to turn over critical documents on the grounds that they show internal department deliberations and were created after February 4, 2011 -- the date Justice issued a false denial to Congress," Issa said in Monday's statement. "Contempt will focus on the failure to provide these post February 4th documents."
Issa left the door open for a resolution before the contempt measure comes up, saying that if Holder "decides to produce these subpoenaed documents, I am confident we can reach agreement on other materials and render the process of contempt unnecessary."
Holder has testified at seven congressional hearings on Operation Fast and Furious, which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He has consistently maintained that he knew nothing about the flawed tactics until early last year.
The Justice Department slammed the House committee's announcement Monday, calling it "unfortunate and unwarranted."
"From the beginning, Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the Attorney General and others, and this latest move fits within that tired political playbook that has so many Americans disillusioned with Washington," said spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
The Justice Department is involved in discussions with committee staff regarding a "mutually acceptable resolution to their requests for information," she added.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, similarly criticized the decision to move forward with possible contempt proceedings.
"It is unfortunate that the Committee scheduled a contempt vote against the Attorney General when federal law prohibits him from turning over many of the subpoenaed documents, but I am guardedly optimistic that a path forward exists that will serve the legitimate interests of the Committee," Cummings said in a Monday statement.
Various groups -- among them The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The National Action Network and the National Women's Law Center -- have sent letters to either Issa or House Speaker John Boehner, urging the committee to reconsider the effort to cite Holder for contempt.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama maintains "absolute confidence" in the attorney general.
At a hearing last week, Issa said applications for wiretaps connected to the program showed top Justice officials were aware early on that illegally purchased weapons in Arizona had ended up in the hands of Mexican cartels.
Holder responded that the documents don't back Issa's claims of high-level knowledge of the operation.
"There's nothing in those affidavits as I've reviewed them that indicates that gun-walking was allowed," Holder said, adding: "I didn't see anything in there that would put on notice a person who was reviewing them ... knowledge of the fact that these inappropriate tactics were being used."
The Justice Department has acknowledged that the plan, which allowed illegally purchased guns to "walk" across the border into Mexico, was badly flawed. Such sting operations have now been prohibited.
The ATF, which lost track of more than a thousand firearms after they crossed the border, found itself under fire when two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Terry's family has been among critics of the Holder Justice Department's handling of the case.
Late Monday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to Issa, suggesting a meeting on the matter -- an offer Cole said he's made previously. He called the committee's decision on the contempt hearing "premature."
"I am confident that the two of us, working in good faith, can bring this matter to a close," Cole wrote.
Previously, a House Republican leadership source told CNN that Speaker Boehner gave his approval for Issa's committee to take up the contempt measure.
"We feel like we've given (the Department of Justice) every opportunity to handle this properly, but they've stonewalled, and we have a constitutional responsibility to provide oversight," the source said on condition of not being identified.
A congressional source, also speaking on condition of not being identified, noted that "there's a huge change between what they said in the February 4th letter and a full retraction of their statements in it. How did they come to that conclusion?"