(Washington Times) – The House on Thursday cited Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for contempt of Congress in a historic vote weighted with political significance, though it does little to break the stalemate over his decision to withhold documents over the Justice Department’s actions in a botched gun-walking operation.
The 255-67 vote amounted to a political spanking for Mr. Holder and President Obama, and 17 Democrats joined with Republicans in demanding the documents be released. Most Democrats, however, walked out in protest of the vote.
It marks the first time an attorney general has been held in contempt by a chamber.
But the White House dismissed the proceedings as a sideshow, and the vote does nothing to break the impasse, though it further poisoned feelings in an already bitterly divided chamber.
“No Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Democrats pleaded with the Republicans to slow down the proceedings, saying the oversight committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, has done a shoddy job in putting together its investigation.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, even introduced a resolution demanding that the House reprimand Mr. Issa for partisanship and accusing him of having “engaged in a witch hunt.”
Many Democrats walked out of the contempt vote in protest, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the vote was a black eye for the Republicans.
“Just when you think you have seen it all. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly go any further over the edge, they come up with something like this,” she said. “What is happening here is shameful.”
Democrats also tried to force the matter back into Mr. Issa’s committee, but the House defeated that motion.
As issue is the oversight committee’s investigation into Fast and Furious, an operation intended to track sales of U.S. guns and watch the guns be shipped across the border to a Mexican drug cartel, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lost track of the roughly 2,000 weapons after they were sold.
Some of the guns eventually began showing up at crime scenes, including two that were recovered at the site of a 2010 Arizona shootout that left Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry dead.
Mr. Holder shut down the operation, but his efforts to clean up after it have come under scrutiny. The Justice Department initially told Congress it never knowingly lost track of guns, but after whistleblowers made it clear that this was false, Mr. Holder had to withdraw that claim.
The Justice Department has turned over documents about the actual gun-walking operation, but have refused to turn over documents about how it handled the false information it provided to Congress. Last week President Obama asserted executive privilege, arguing those documents are protected by precedent that governs internal deliberations.
Democrats said they aren’t defending the gun-walking operation, but said the committee should leave Mr. Holder alone.
“This is a witch hunt. This is politics, pure and simple,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.
Republicans, though, said they have issued a valid subpoena, and said Mr. Holder is stonewalling. They said they are trying to hold the administration accountable and to try to get answers for the Terry family.
Mr. Issa even closed out the debate speaking in front of a giant poster of the agent in his Border Patrol uniform, saying he was trying to remind his colleagues of the human cost of the gun-walking operation.
“We were lied to repeatedly and over a 10-month period,” Mr. Issa said. “That is what we’re here for.”