As part of the operation, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, agents watched as more than 2,000 guns hit the streets. Two guns tied to the operation were found at the scene of the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In a statement, Holder described the vote as “the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided — and politically motivated — investigation during an election year.” He accused Republicans leading the investigation of focusing “on politics over public safety.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) disputed such accusations.
“I don’t take this matter lightly and, frankly, hoped it would never come to this,” he said from the House floor before the vote. “The House is focused on jobs and the economy. But no Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold.”
Although the GOP-led House was widely expected to sanction Holder, it’s not clear whether the vote will get Republicans the documents they had requested. In the coming days, lawmakers will press to have criminal charges filed against the attorney general. But the decision of whether to do so will be made by the U.S. attorney for the District, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who ultimately reports to Holder.
The House also voted Thursday to authorize civil action against Holder, a move that paves the way for a federal court challenge to President Obama’s decision to invoke executive privilege over some of the documents being sought.
For Republicans, however, the citation served as a symbolic blow to the nation’s highest law enforcement officer, who, by some accounts, is the first sitting Cabinet member to ever have been held in contempt of Congress.
Before the vote, several Democrats walked off the House floor to protest what they characterized as an investigation, backed by the National Rifle Association, to embarrass Holder and the White House.
Led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), about 100 members exited through the main center door of the House floor and then walked solemnly and silently down the front steps of the U.S. Capitol with television cameras rolling and tourists looking on.
Under the hot summer sun, member after member denounced the vote as a sham. “This is a terrible day for the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We are declaring, by walking out, we are not participating.”