WASHINGTON: Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday became the first Cabinet member held in contempt of Congress, a rebuke pushed by Republicans seeking to unearth the facts behind a bungled gun-tracking operation and dismissed by most Democrats as a political stunt.
The vote was 255-67, with more than 100 Democrats boycotting.
Black lawmakers led the walkout as members filed up the aisle and out of the chamber to protest the action against Holder, who is the nation’s first black attorney general. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California joined the boycott, saying Republicans had gone “over the edge” in their partisanship.
Seventeen Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of the contempt vote, while two Republicans — Reps. Steven LaTourette of Bainbridge Township and Scott Rigell of Virginia — voted against it.
The National Rifle Association pressed hard for the contempt resolution, leaning on members of both parties who want to stay in the NRA’s good graces.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said all 17 Democrats who voted for criminal contempt had previously received an “A” grade from the organization.
Holder said afterward that the vote was merely a politically motivated act in an election year.
“Today’s vote may make for good political theater in the minds of some, but it is — at base — both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people. They expect — and they deserve — far better,” Holder said in New Orleans.
The attorney general said the House vote would result in an unnecessary court fight.
Republicans cited Holder’s refusal to hand over — without any preconditions — documents that could explain why the Obama administration initially denied that a risky “gun-walking” investigative tactic was used in Operation Fast and Furious.
The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered in the failed strategy to track the weapons.
The vote on a criminal contempt resolution sent the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder. In previous contempt cases, federal prosecutors in the nation’s capital have refused to act on congressional contempt citations against members of their own administration.
A separate vote on civil contempt passed 258-95, with 21 Democrats supporting it. It will allow the House to hire its own attorney to bring a civil lawsuit in an effort to force Holder to turn over the documents.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
During the debate before the vote, Republicans said they were seeking answers for the Michigan family of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in December 2010 in a shootout with Mexican bandits. Two guns from Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
Democrats insisted that they, too, wanted the Terry family to have all the facts, but argued that only a more thorough, bipartisan investigation would accomplish that.
Terry’s family issued a statement through the Brian Terry Foundation, saying: “The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago.”