Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday became the first sitting 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. Rep. Jerry Lewis, D-Calif., was the one Republican who chose not to vote.
African-American 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. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio — joined other Democrats in voting No.
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. Holder said afterward the vote was merely a politically motivated act in an election year
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, which allowed hundreds of guns to be smuggled from Arizona to Mexico.
“Neither executive privilege of the President nor of any agency can overcome a legitimate need by Congress or an investigation of criminal wrongdoing," said Congressman Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight panel.
The vote on a criminal contempt resolution sent the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder.
A separate vote on civil contempt passed 258-95. It will allow the House to go to court 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.
“Unfortunately what they wanted all along is a fight with the attorney general and a fight with the president, and it’s good theatrics for them," says Adam Schiff (D-Calif). "But it’s a real disservice to the American people who frankly aren’t concerned about this, they want jobs.”
The NRA urged House members to vote for contempt, contending the administration wanted to use Operation Fast and Furious to win gun control measures. Democrats who normally support the NRA but who vote against the contempt citations would lose any 100 percent ratings from the group.
That could affect whether they get endorsements from the powerful organization, particularly if Republican opponents surface who are strong NRA backers. But a former NRA board member and the longest-serving House member, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, argued gun control was not at issue. He failed in attempt to head off the contempt votes.
The Congressional Black Caucus, explaining its boycott, said in a letter to the House that "Contempt power should be used sparingly, carefully and only in the most egregious situations" and the GOP leadership had "articulated no legislative purpose for pursuing this course of action."
The dispute is both legal and political. Republicans asserted their right to obtain documents needed for an investigation of Operation Fast and Furious — focusing on 10 months in 2011 after the Obama administration initially denied guns were allowed to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico. By year's end, the administration acknowledged the assertion was wrong.
President Barack Obama asserted a broad form of executive privilege, a legal position designed to keep executive branch documents from being disclosed. The assertion ensures that documents will not be turned over any time soon, unless a deal is reached between the administration and congressional Republicans.
In the debate, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the contempt motions were "Fast and foolish, fast and fake."
Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., took the opposite view, arguing, "A man died serving his country, and we have a right to know what the federal government's hand was in that."
For the past year and a half, some Republicans have promoted the idea that Holder and other top-level officials at the Justice Department knew federal agents in Operation Fast and Furious had engaged in gun-walking.
Two of Holder's emails and one from Deputy Attorney General James Cole in early 2011 appear to show that they hadn't known about gun-walking but were determined to find out whether the allegations were true.
"We need answers on this," Holder wrote. "Not defensive BS. Real answers."
The Justice Department showed the selected emails on Tuesday to Republican and Democratic staffers of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, in an effort to ward off the criminal contempt vote against the attorney general.
The full contents of the emails were described to The Associated Press by two people who have seen them. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about them publicly.
In Operation Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in that operation.
This story has been updated.