WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives found Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress on Thursday, creating a bitter political break between two branches of government and sending it to the courts to decide whether the attorney general must release internal records dealing with Fast and Furious.
The votes approved in the Republican-controlled House covered two contempt of Congress citations — one as a criminal matter referring the issue to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington for prosecution, the other authorizing the House to hire a special attorney to bring a civil lawsuit.
Both, if successful, would force Holder to turn over 1,500 pages of material dealing with how he and other Justice Department officials dealt with the scandal over the gun-tracking case after it became public. Republicans allege that there has been a cover-up to hide the department’s involvement. How far they will get remains uncertain, as President Obama has asserted executive privilege in keeping the documents under seal.
Before the votes were cast, 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 that the Obama administration was stonewalling and Democrats dismissed the contempt vote as 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), marched quietly out of the House chamber, in single and double-file, expressing solidarity with Holder and the president. Outside, they walked down the Capitol steps and, holding hands, gathered at a small park.
“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.”
Inside, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) fired back. “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. He also 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,” the attorney general said. He added that the debate and votes were “good political theater” but also “a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people.”
The vote for criminal contempt was 255 to 67. Seventeen Democrats voted for contempt, some after being warned by the National Rifle Assn. that it would include the vote in a score card it planned to release before the congressional election. A total of 108 Democrats did not vote, and one voted “present.” Two Republicans voted against it.
The vote for civil contempt was 258 to 95. Twenty-one Democrats crossed over and voted for contempt, five voted “present” and 70 did not vote at all. No Republicans voted against it.
Operation Fast and Furious, run by the federalBureau 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 crime scenes in Mexico and two were recovered near where Terry was killed.
The point man for citing Holder with contempt was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the oversight committee. He has zealously been demanding Holder honor a committee subpoena for the records, even refusing several entreaties by Justice Department officials for an informal review of the records.
Issa, standing next to a large photograph of Terry, held up copies of Fast and Furious wiretap applications that he said were read by top Justice Department officials advising them “that they were letting guns go to Mexico.” But, he said, Holder and the Justice Department “lied repeatedly” to the committee about their knowledge of Fast and Furious, and that is why they are shielding the documents.
“This was lies and a coverup,” Issa charged. “That’s what we are voting on.”
House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio) said, “We’ve been patient, and we’ve shown more than enough good faith,” but noted that Holder had not cooperated. “No Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution.”
On the Democratic side, Rep.Elijah E. Cummingsof Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight panel, said on the House floor that Republican leaders were “almost giddy” over contempt for Holder. Cummings fought for weeks to stop the momentum toward a contempt vote but could not get enough votes to make up for the Republican majority in the House and the Democratic crossovers.
“Today is a historic day,” Cummings said. “Republican leaders are about to plunge into the history books by taking one of the most extreme and partisan actions the House of Representatives has ever seen.”
Rep.Adam B. Schiff(D-Burbank), a key figure working with Cummings, said that for the Republicans, “the fight is the goal … a political brawl over nothing.” He added, “What we do today will cause no damage to the Justice Department. But it will cause great damage to the House.”
An effort by Rep.John D. Dingell(D-Mich.) to delay the vote, hold more committee hearings into Fast and Furious and seek a compromise with Holder was voted down.
Ian Duncan and Jamie Goldberg in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.