The House of Representatives voted Thursday to make Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. the first sitting attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress for withholding documents requested as part of a congressional investigation into a botched gun-running operation.
On a vote of 255 to 67, the Republican-led House successfully sanctioned Holder for failing to cooperate with an ongoing probe into Operation “Fast and Furious,” which was led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from 2009 to 2011.
In a statement, Holder said the vote “is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided – and politically motivated – investigation during an election year.” Holder added that the Republicans leading the investigation “have focused on politics over public safety.”
In the coming days, the House is expected to refer the contempt charge to Ronald C. Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who will have to decide whether to press criminal charges against Holder, his boss. Based on a separate vote Thursday authorizing civil action against Holder, theHouse Oversight and Government Reform Committee is expected to mount a court challenge to President Obama’s decision to invoke executive privilege over some of the documents sought by the panel.
Before the vote, several Democrats walked off the House to protest what they characterize as a politically motivated investigation, backed in recent days by theNational Rifle Association, to embarrass Holder and the White House.
“This is not a principled effort to resolve the issue,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said before her colleagues left the floor.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) disputed those charges.
“I don’t take this matter lightly, and frankly hoped it would never come to this,” he said from the floor. “The House is focused on jobs and the economy. But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold.”
Over the course of an almost 18-month investigation, Republicans have said they are chiefly concerned with an attorney general whose Justice Department, in refusing to release documents, has covered up what senior officials knew — and when they knew — about the operation that allowed thousands of firearms onto U.S. streets and into Mexico and resulted in the death of a U.S. border patrol agent, Brian Terry, in December 2010.
Among the dozens of Republican lawmakers who spoke before the vote, Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.) said Thursday’s contempt vote was “long overdue” and “welcome news” to the American people.
But Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) said Holder “has provided all the information. They keep asking. There’s no further legislative purpose to be served — it’s time for the attorney general to get back to work.”
Holder has testified to congressional committees about Fast and Furious nine times over the past 14 months. On Thursday, he traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to speak at the annual convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He attended the White House Congressional Picnic on Wednesday evening to mingle with some of the lawmakers who plan to hold him in contempt.
Adding to the political intrigue, the contempt vote was held just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the individual health insurance mandate at the heart of President Obama’s landmark health-care law.
The conflict between the Justice Department and House Republicans centers on a particular set of documents that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committeesubpoenaed from the Justice Department in October as part of its investigation into Fast and Furious.
The operation, named after the popular movie series, was run out of the ATF's Phoenix division, with the legal backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. As part of the operation, ATF agents purposefully did not interdict more than 2,000 weapons they suspected of being purchased at Arizona gun shops by illegal buyers known as “straw purchasers”; agents hoped to later track them to a Mexican drug cartel.
While conducting Fast and Furious, ATF lost track of most of the firearms, some of which have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States. Two of the guns connected to the operation were found at a site in the Arizona desert where Terry was killed.
Last year, a Justice Department official told lawmakers in a letter that ATF had not ever “sanctioned” or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico. Ten months later, the Justice Department withdrew the letter, acknowledging the botched operation.
That episode has heightened suspicions among Republican lawmakers, who have demanded that the department hand over records of any deliberations it had about Fast and Furious after the Feb. 4, 2011, letter.
Justice officials have insisted that no senior officials in the department knew of the controversial tactics. They also have said they have worked hard to cooperate with requests from the oversight committee. During the past year, Justice officials have turned over 7,600 documents relating to the operation, as well as documents relating to another operation involving “gun-walking,” as the tactic is known, during the George W. Bush administration.
In the days before the vote, the Obama administration joined congressional Democrats in arguing that Holder and the Justice Department went above and beyond previous congressional requests for information and bemoaned that the episode has devolved into a politically motivated exercise.
But the administration’s focus on political motivation was blunted by a handful of moderate House Democrats expected who voted with Republicans to hold the attorney general in contempt. The NRA said before the vote that it planned to track how members voted in determining future endorsements and several moderate Democrats rely on the group’s support in election years.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.