Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. speaks during a news conference in New Orleans… (Bill Haber / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives found Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress on Thursday, creating a bitter political break between the two branches of government.
If successful, the action would force Holder to turn over 1,500 pages of material dealing with how he and other Justice Department officials dealt with the scandal after it became public in what Republicans suspect was a cover-up to hide their involvement in the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. But how far they will get remained uncertain as President Obama has asserted executive privilege in keeping the documents under seal.
Until the vote was cast early Thursday evening, no sitting Cabinet member had ever been found in contempt by Congress, and the weight of history hung heavily over the chamber as Republicans charged the Obama administration was stonewalling and Democrats dismissed contempt as nothing more than partisan political theater.
At the start of the voting, about 100 Democrats led by Congressional Black Caucus members, as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), walked quietly out of the House chamber, in single and double-file, in solidarity with Holder and President Obama. Outside, they walked down the Capitol steps and, holding hands, gathered at a small park on the south side of the House.
“We are nonparticipants in what we believe to be a calamity,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.). “This is a terrible day for the House of Representatives. We did not want to participate in something that had some kind of a smell to it.”
On the House floor Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) fired back at Democrats. “The attorney general can stonewall all he wants,” he said. “He can misremember all he wants. But today responsibility will land on his desk.”
Holder, standing before a photograph of Obama, defiantly announced that he would not be deterred from his job, and he showed no inclination to provide the documents. “Today’s vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year,” he said.
He added that the debate and votes were “good political theater” but also “at base, a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people.”
Fast and Furious, run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, began in the fall of 2009 and ended shortly after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010, south of Tucson. According to evidence collected by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), as well as acknowledgments from Holder and top Justice officials, firearms were allowed to be illegally sold in the Phoenix area with the hope that agents could track them to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Instead, most of the 2,500 weapons were lost, scores turned up at Mexican crime scenes and two were recovered after Terry was killed.
The vote for criminal contempt was 255-67, with one member voting present. Seventeen Democrats voted for contempt and two Republicans voted against it. A total of 108 Democrats did not vote.