WASHINGTON-The House on Thursday voted to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress for withholding documents requested in its ongoing investigation into Operation Fast and Furious.
The 255-to-67 vote marks the first time Congress has held in contempt a sitting member of a president's Cabinet. Seventeen Democrats supported the contempt resolution, but more than 100 Democrats boycotted the vote. A group of African-American lawmakers led the walkout, which also included Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
"When we asked legitimate questions about … Fast and Furious we were lied to," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said moments before the vote. Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has spent the last 18 months investigating the gun-walking scandal.
"We are here today," Issa continued, "for the first time in over 200 years to deal with an attorney general who has flat refused to give the information related to lies and a cover-up exclusively within his jurisdiction."
Republicans leaders are now authorized to seek criminal charges against Holder over the scandal and its aftermath, but the matter will now be sent to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen, to investigate. But that places Machen in the awkward position of having to consider pressing criminal charges against his boss, Holder.
A civil contempt resolution, which passed the House late Thursday afternoon by a 258-to-95 vote, including 21 Democrats, will enable House Republicans to take the Justice Department to court in order to force Holder to turn over the documents in question, offering a potentially easier path of success for the GOP lawmakers.
The contempt clash focused on internal documents the Justice Department refuses to hand over to the congressional committee investigating the botched gunrunning operation. Specifically, Republican lawmakers are asking for Justice Department communications written between February 4, 2011, and December 2, 2011.
That February, Justice Department officials assured Congress in a letter that no inappropriate activity had occurred with the operation and that federal law enforcement officials had not allowed assault weapons to be sold to Mexican drug cartels. But 10 months later the Justice Department backtracked, withdrawing its original letter and admitting that the operation was "fundamentally flawed."
Issa and other Republicans have been seeking internal documents from that time span to help determine what happened to cause the Justice Department's retraction and admission. But President Obama last week invoked executive privilege to bar the congressional subpoena seeking those documents.
In the program dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives distributed more than 2,000 guns to a Mexican drug-trafficking network. The guns later turned up at numerous violent crime scenes in both Mexico and the United States, including an attack in December 2010 that killed U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry.
In their speeches before Thursday's vote on the House floor, Republicans regularly invoked Terry's name.
"The House needs to know how this happened, and it is our constitutional duty to find out," said House Speaker John Boehner before Thursday's contempt vote. "I frankly hoped it would never come to this. But no Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution."
Many House Democrats, in addition to the mass walkout, spent the day lashing out at Republicans for the contempt vote. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., called it "shameful election year political posturing."
The 17 Democrats who voted for criminal contempt had been recipients of an "A" grade from the National Rifle Association, according to NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. The NRA supported the efforts to find Holder in contempt, claiming that the Obama administration had wanted to use Operation Fast and Furious to help toughen gun control laws.
On Thursday Holder responded to the House measures in a statement, saying, "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."
When Democrats held the House majority in 2008, they cited for contempt two Bush administration officials in a controversy over the firing of several U.S attorneys. At that time Pelosi, then House Speaker, argued in favor of strong congressional oversight over the executive branch.
"Oversight is an institutional obligation to ensure against abuse of power," she said then. "Subpoena authority is a vital tool for that oversight."
During that 2008 contempt fight, a fight in which President George W. Bush also invoked executive privilege, prosecutors declined to charge the two Bush administration officials.