CAPITOL HILL -- The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to cite Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to release documents relating to "Fast and Furious" - a failed government operation that put guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. The was vote viewed by many as a legal and political showdown between the Republican-led House and Democratic President Barack Obama and his attorney general.
With Democratic lawmakers in the mood to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling upholding President Obama's health care law, Republican Speaker John Boehner agreed to bring the contempt votes to the floor of the House.
"Now, I don't take this matter lightly and I would frankly hope that it would never come to this," said Boehner. "The House's focus is on jobs and on 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."
While Republicans stressed that Congress deserve to hear all of the facts about the failed "Fast and Furious" operation, Democrats accused Republicans of unfairly targeting the president's attorney general in an election year to score political points with their voters and with the National Rifle Association gun lobby that urged lawmakers to vote for the contempt resolutions.
Seventeen Democrats joined the majority of Republicans in voting for the contempt resolution. The vote was 255 in favor and 67 against. Scores of Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, walked out of the House chamber and did not vote.
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the Republican majority "contemptible."
"As I said to you before, this is not about anything other than they are trying to undermine the chief legal officer of our country, the attorney general," said Pelosi. "It is the first time in the history of America that a cabinet officer has had a contempt of Congress resolution on the floor [of the House of Representatives] against him or against her."
House Minority Whip, Democrat Steny Hoyer expressed his outrage.
"I believe that the political motivations behind this resolution are clear, and pose a clear and present danger to this nation," said Hoyer.
Republican Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, pushed for the contempt vote. Issa has conducted an 18-month investigation into "Fast and Furious" - a failed sting operation in which federal authorities allowed U.S. guns to flow into Mexico as part of a plan to identify and dismantle arms trafficking networks. Two of the guns were found at the scene of the shooting death of a U.S. border patrol agent. Issa did not accuse Attorney General Holder or President Obama of knowing about the gun-walking operation or of a cover-up. But he and other lawmakers demanded that Holder release more documents in the case than the Attorney General was willing to disclose. President Obama invoked executive privilege - a power used by the Executive Branch of government to deny requests for documents or to reject subpoenas.
A citation for contempt of Congress has symbolic importance, but its impact is limited because the Executive Branch controls prosecution decisions. And in this case, that means the Justice Department. Experts says it is highly unlikely that one of Holder's employees at the Justice Department would put his or her boss in front of a grand jury for prosecution, especially because President Obama has asserted executive privilege over the release of the documents.
The White House released a statement after the House vote, saying that Eric Holder has been an excellent Attorney General, and calling the vote a "transparently political stunt."