With more than 100 Democrats boycotting, the US House of Representatives held US Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents related to a failed gun-tracking operation. It was the first time a sitting Cabinet member has been held in contempt.
The vote on Thursday was 255-67. Boycotting Democrats said the contempt resolution was a political stunt.
Republicans accuse Holder, the top US lawyer, of stonewalling the investigation of “Operation Fast and Furious,” in which guns purchased in the US were taken to Mexico. Democrats charge the vote was politically motivated ahead of the November election in which their leader, US President Barack Obama, is seeking a second term.
The vote on a criminal contempt resolution sent the matter to the US attorney for the District of Columbia, who is under Holder. In previous contempt cases, federal prosecutors in the US capital have refused to act on congressional contempt citations against members of their own administration.
Black lawmakers led a 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 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 joined other Democrats in voting No.
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 legislative and executive branches.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), a gun advocacy group, 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 to Mexico.
During the debate before the vote, Republicans said they were seeking answers for the 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 said that they, too, wanted the Terry family to have all the facts, but said that only a more thorough, bipartisan investigation would accomplish that.
“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. They expect — and they deserve — far better,” Holder said in New Orleans.
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. However, a former NRA board member and the longest-serving House member, US Representative John Dingell, said gun control was not at issue. He failed in attempt to head off the contempt votes.