U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a hearing on the "Oversight of the Justice Department" held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Reuters

The clock is ticking for Eric Holder.

If he wants to avoid an unprecedented contempt vote before the full House of Representatives, the embattled attorney general must strike a deal with Republicans seeking more documents in an investigation of the failed Fast and Furious gun-trafficking operation. The House committee conducting the investigation voted on Wednesday to recommend citing Holder for contempt, and Republican leaders promised a full vote soon after.

Despite being given multiple opportunities to provide the documents necessary for Congress' investigation into Fast and Furious, Attorney General Holder continues to stonewall, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a joint statement. While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the attorney general reevaluates his choices and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week.

No standing attorney general has ever been held in contempt by the House. In 1998, a committee sought to hold Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt over documents related to a campaign finance investigation against President Clinton, but the matter never reached a floor vote.

If the House votes to hold Holder in contempt, it could expose him to prosecution by a U.S. attorney. That outcome is unlikely because Holder resisted a subpoena for more documents -- the grounds for a contempt vote -- under the cover of the Obama administration invoking executive privilege.

Holder called Wednesday's vote an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch. He accused Republican Darrell Issa, chair of the committee overseeing the probe, of pursuing an election-year tactic intended to distract intention and called the dispute political theater.

Still, the attorney general signaled that he remains willing to work out a compromise with lawmakers.

I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way, Holder told the Associated Press. The proposal that we have made is still there. The House, I think, the House leadership, has to consider now what they will do, so we'll see how it works out.

But a similar effort failed on the eve of Wednesday's vote. Holder met with officials from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and from the Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to exchange a promise of more documents for lawmakers dropping the imminent vote.

The two sides could not agree, and instead Holder prevailed upon President Obama to exert his executive privilege to block the release of internal e-mail exchanges Republicans sought. Obama responded by invoking executive power for the first time in his presidency, angering Republicans and bolstering their suspicion that Holder has something to hide.

The standoff stems from a months-long investigation into Fast and Furious, a program in which agents for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowed guns to walk, deliberately declining to seize them so they could monitor where they were going. But many of those weapons likely ended up in the hands of a Mexican drug cartel, and two firearms were found near the scene of a December 2010 firefight that claimed the life of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent.