But they left behind a group of 17 Democrats who face some of the toughest reelection contests in the nation, and that group joined Republicans in rebuking Holder. That solid bloc of Democratic support for the contempt motion against an attorney general appointed by a Democratic president was a testament to the GOP’s ability to make Holder radioactive in some key swing districts and to the enduring political influence of the National Rifle Association in Washington.
Despite the vote,the Justice Department told House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday that Holder’s decision to withhold some information from an ongoing congressional probe into Operation “Fast and Furious” didn’t constitute a crime and would not be prosecuted.
Republicans expect the vote to energize some of their most loyal supporters. But for the Democrats who voted with them, it was a chance to demonstrate independence from the party leadership and to keep the NRA attack ads at bay.
“They can use this as a stark reminder that they did not follow their party leader out the door,” said analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “These Democrats are trying to carve out records to let them prove their independence.”
But also, the NRA announced last week that it would include the lawmakers on its closely watched legislative score card. This week, the group turned over the homepage on its Web site to a graphic calling for NRA members to pressure lawmakers to vote for contempt.
“In my district, I hear a lot about Fast and Furious. It’s in the public discourse,” said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who represents a conservative district and supported contempt.
His own vote, he said, was motivated by a desire to see Holder release documents requested by Congress. But he said the NRA has successfully raised the visibility of the gun-running operation.
Republicans pursued contempt charges against Holder after the Obama administration withheld documents demanded by lawmakers as part of an investigation into Fast and Furious, a flawed federal program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from 2009 to 2011.
Several Democrats who backed the resolution said they voted with Republicans because they believed Holder was thumbing his nose at the House’s oversight responsibility. “I feel Congress has a constitutional responsibility to exercise effective oversight regardless of which administration,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), who stood quietly in a dark corner of the House floor Thursday as most of his Democratic colleagues walked out. “If there is nothing incriminating in those documents, I see no reason why they should not have been turned over.”
Rep. Leonard L. Boswell (Iowa), facing one of the toughest reelection contests this year, agreed that Holder should hand over the documents: “Just give it to them. Back the truck up and unload it.”