The House of Representatives voted Thursday to make Eric H. Holder Jr. the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress in U.S. history after he withheld documents that Republican lawmakers demanded as part of an investigation into a flawed gunrunning operation.
The vote — 255 to 67, with 108 Democrats abstaining — capped weeks of partisan sniping over Holder’s decision not to turn over a set of documents that lawmakers had sought as part of their 18-month-long probe into “Fast and Furious,” as the case was known.
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.”
Hoyer then led the group in chanting: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
Although most Democrats left before the vote, 17 sided with Republicans to hold Holder in contempt. Most of those Democrats are moderates who have been endorsed by the NRA, which said before the vote that it planned to track how members voted in determining endorsements.
The conflict that led to the contempt vote centered on a particular set of documents that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed as part of its investigation into Fast and Furious.
Justice officials said they have cooperated with the investigation, turning over 7,600 documents relating to the gun operation and making several senior officials available to testify. Holder testified on the matter nine times on Capitol Hill over the past 14 months.
But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), insisted that Holder and his aides were stonewalling his probe.
“Claims by the Justice Department that it has fully cooperated with this investigation fall at odds with its conduct: issuing false denials to Congress when senior officials clearly knew about gunwalking, directing witnesses not to answer entire categories of questions, retaliating against whistleblowers, and providing only 7,600 documents while withholding over 100,000,” Issa said in a statement.
On Thursday, Issa led Republicans through hours of contentious debate with Democrats, at one point standing at a lectern with a large photo of Brian Terry, the border agent who was killed in December 2010, by his side. As he recounted his committee’s efforts to obtain documents from the Justice Department, he waved a ream of papers in his hands and then, for emphasis, dropped them to the floor with a loud thud.
Fast and Furious, named after the popular movie series, was run out of the ATF’s Phoenix division, with the legal backing of the U.S. attorney there. Agents did not interdict weapons they suspected of being purchased at Arizona gun shops by illegal buyers known as “straw purchasers.” Instead, they planned on tracking them through the pipelines being used to deliver firearms to a Mexican drug cartel.
Last year, a Justice Department official told lawmakers in a letter that the ATF had not ever “sanctioned” or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico. Ten months later, the Justice Department withdrew the letter, acknowledging the botched operation.
That episode heightened suspicions among Republican lawmakers, who have demanded that the department hand over records of any deliberations it had about Fast and Furious between Feb. 4, 2011, when the letter was written, and December, when it was withdrawn.
Justice officials have insisted that no senior officials in the department knew the details of the operation and have noted that the ATF has overseen similar firearm-trafficking investigations, including during President George W. Bush’s administration.
The Justice Department has historically declined to press charges against executive branch officials held in contempt of Congress, based on a legal analysis prepared during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
In May 1984, then-Assistant Attorney General Theodore B. Olson wrote that U.S. attorneys are not required to refer congressional contempt charges to a grand jury or prosecute an executive branch official “who carries out the President’s instruction to invoke the President’s claim of executive privilege before a committee.”
In July 2007 and February 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey cited the Olson analysis in letters to House Democratic leaders, informing them that Justice would decline to press charges against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, who were held in contempt after failing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.
Rosalind S. Helderman and Julie Tate contributed to this report.