The full House of Representatives voted on Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the Justice Department's decision to withhold documents related to the failed Fast and Furious gunwalking operation.
By a vote of 255 to 67, House members voted to hold Holder in contempt, disregarding a protest walkout led by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
"This is a sad day for the House of Representatives. It is an irresponsible day for the House of Representatives," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said on the House floor prior to the vote. "It is a day in which the majority party asked us to take an action that has never been taken in the history of America."
Thursday's vote was the first time a sitting Cabinet officer was held in contempt. Hoyer noted that Congress has issued previous contempt citations to other officials, but that the average time between committee action and consideration was 87 days. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted just last week to advance the measure to the full House.
A total of 108 Democrats out of protest on Thursday chose not to vote on the measure, with 1 lawmaker voting present.
Earlier Thursday, the House Democratic caucus voted unanimously to endorse the walkout. Just prior to the vote, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Hoyer joined with the CBC, members of the Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Progressive Caucuses as well as other lawmakers to exit the House floor in protest, filing out of the chamber in a slow-moving and crowded line.
"The Republican Leadership has articulated no legislative purpose for pursuing this course of action," the Caucus stated in a letter they previously circulated to colleagues encouraging them to join the walkout. "For these reasons we cannot and will not participate in a vote to hold the Attorney General in contempt. We adamantly oppose this partisan attack and refuse to participate in any vote that would tarnish the image of Congress or of an Attorney General who has done nothing but work tirelessly to protect the rights of the American people."
Thursday's vote marked the culmination of the Oversight Committee's push to hold the government accountable for the failings of Fast and Furious, a scheme which oversaw the sale of firearms to Mexican drug cartels, though the majority of the weapons went missing.
The committee opened an investigation into the operation to determine what the government knew and when, especially in light of a Feb. 4, 2011 letter, which the Justice Department later retracted. The letter incorrectly stated that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives "makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico."
The Justice Department refused to hand over many of the documents subpoenaed by the committee citing internal deliberations contained in the materials. President Barack Obama backed the decision and personally exerted executive privilege over the documents last week.
Democrats argue that the Justice Department has been compliant to the extent it is able and that Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other Republican lawmakers are simply playing politics by targeting Holder.
"The Congress should be embarrassed about the conduct of this investigation and the charade that brings us to the floor today," Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania said on the House floor prior to the vote.
"The Attorney General can't provide these documents-- the president has protected them under... executive privilege." Fattah added that Republicans have "lost their way" and because of them, Congress is held in high contempt.
Other Democrats argue that Issa is woefully ignoring gunwalking operations conducted during President George W. Bush's administration.
But Republicans maintain that they are fulfilling their duty to hold the government accountable and offered the Justice Department many opportunities to comply.
"The Justice Department did not provide the facts and the information we requested," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on the House floor. In addition, Boehner said, the government "admitted to misleading Congress."
On Thursday, Republicans rejected the Democratic assertion that their fight is simply political in nature.
"I hear the stuff about witch hunt and about politics and it gets me sick," Florida Republican Rep. Rich Nugent said on the House floor. "As a former law enforcement officer, we should be more worried about what lousy policies that Attorney General Holder is covering up that caused the death of one of our own in protecting this country." Nugent invoked the name of border patrol agent Brian Terry, who was killed on Dec. 2010. Weapons related to Fast and Furious were found at his murder scene.
Holder, in a statement following the vote, accused Republicans of failing to properly respond to Terry's death.
"Today's vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided-- and politically motivated-- investigation during an election year," Holder said. "By advancing it over the past year and a half, Congressman Issa and others have focused on politics over public safety. Instead of trying to correct the problems that led to a series of flawed law enforcement operations, and instead of helping us find ways to better protect the brave law enforcement officers, like Agent Brian Terry, who keep us safe — they have led us to this unnecessary and unwarranted outcome.
The National Rifle Association, which contends the government used the operation to promote stricter gun control laws, inserted itself into Thursday's vote by warning lawmakers last week that it will use the contempt vote to rate lawmakers. The organization's decision placed added pressure on House Democrats in gun-friendly districts. Hoyer conceded that some members would change their votes accordingly.
Seventeen Democrats joined with 238 Republicans to hold the attorney general in contempt, a number Republicans say invalidates talk of political theater.
"False and partisan allegations by the White House and some congressional Democrats about the Oversight Committee's efforts were undermined by the votes of 17 Democrats," Issa said in a statement following the vote. "These Members resisted the pressure of their own leadership and the Obama Administration to support this investigation on the House floor."
Issa, who noted that the vote could have been avoided if the Justice Department had released the pertinent documents, warned that the Republicans' fight is not yet over. "Unless President Obama relents to this bipartisan call for transparency and an end to the cover-up, our fight will move to the courts where we will prevail in getting the documents that the Justice Department and President Obama's flawed assertion of executive privilege have denied the American people," Issa said.
Following the contempt resolution Thursday-- which centered on criminal charges-- the House passed a vote of civil contempt, which could advance to federal courts.