The Obama administration on Wednesday asserted executive privilege, refusing to provide documents to a committee of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives about a failed gun-running investigation.


The White House move came in response to a planned vote by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding the documents. The panel's chairman, Republican Darrell Issa, vowed to press on with the contempt charge.


"I write now to inform you that the president has asserted executive privilege over relevant ... documents," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to the committee.


Executive privilege allows the White House to argue that some private communications between the president and members of his administration cannot be divulged to Congress.


"This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings," Issa said.


If the House panel votes to charge Holder with contempt, it would then be up to the full House to decide whether to bring that charge against the nation's top law enforcement officer.

The process could take months or even years of court battles and further poison the political atmosphere in a presidential election year.

For months, the committee and the Justice Department have been in negotiations over documents related to federal law enforcement's handling of the "Fast and Furious" probe of guns heading from the United States into Mexico and then being used by Mexican drug cartels.