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U.S. House panel in gun probe may delay vote against Holder

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A vote to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress will be put off once the Justice Department hands over documents it now is willing to give a committee investigating a botched gun-smuggling operation, a Republican lawmaker said on Friday.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, said he would announce the delay in the scheduled June 20 vote as soon as the department produced the documents about the operation to track guns to Mexico.

That would avert a potentially embarrassing political development for President Barack Obama's administration, which has been under fire from Republicans in Congress for about 18 months over the operation dubbed "Fast and Furious."

The operation was meant to determine how thousands of guns were being smuggled from Arizona to violent Mexican drug cartels. But U.S. government agents lost track of many of the weapons.

The operation, which ran from late 2009 until early 2011, came to light after two weapons from it were found in Arizona in December 2010 near the scene of a shootout with illegal immigrants that killed U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

The committee had scheduled the contempt citation vote against Holder for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents on the operation and its aftermath.

But Holder earlier this week said the department was willing to provide a subset of documents detailing how the department learned about the operation after February 4, 2011, and about whistleblower accusations.

Issa told Holder in a letter on Friday that delivery of those documents would be sufficient to justify postponement of the vote so the materials can be reviewed.

Issa said he and Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been another leading critic of the operation, were willing to meet with Holder as soon as June 19.

"It would best facilitate a constructive dialogue if the department would produce the documents ... prior to this discussion," Issa wrote.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said department officials "look forward to a productive" meeting.

"It is in the best interest of all parties to bring this matter to a final resolution by avoiding a confrontation that involves contempt and we believe that the provision of documents must be part of an agreement that brings this matter to a close," she said.

(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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