The Republican-controlled House voted 255-67 on Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress, a historic and divisive election-year action that GOP leaders cast as deadly serious and Democratic leaders denounced as petty politics.
The White House immediately responded by dismissing the vote in a statement from Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer as “a transparently political stunt.” Holder himself called the action the “regrettable culmination of what became a misguided--and politically motivated--investigation" in an election year, during which he said some have advanced “truly absurd conspiracy theories.”
More than 100 Democratic members even walked out of the House chamber without participating in the contempt vote, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who during a contentious floor debate beforehand called the GOP action a rush to “railroading” and warned, “Eric Holder today, somebody else tomorrow. Any charge they can drum up.''
Still, 17 other Democrats joined with Republicans in the unprecedented House censure of a sitting presidential Cabinet member--the Obama administration’s top lawyer. The move came over Holder’s refusal to release internal documents tied to a botched gun-trafficking investigation that saw both sides dig in. Only two Republicans voted no--Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio.
The White House left Republicans with “no other options,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. He was referring to the Obama administration’s assertion this week that the sought-after e-mails and memos are protected by executive privilege.
And Republicans, during an acrimonious floor action, continued to aggressively press an emotional trump card. Before the vote, they reminded the audience repeatedly on the floor that guns that slipped into the hands of drug cartels in Operation Fast and Furious have been linked to the scene of a fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December 2010 and the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans. They insisted the subpoenaed material would shed light about department actions in its aftermath and who was ultimately responsible.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which has spearheaded the congressional probe, said on the House floor that he “never thought this point would come.” But he insisted the contempt vote was a necessary action after 18 months of congressional investigation to get to the facts behind the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms fiasco.
Boehner added that the family of the slain Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, has “every right to have their answers, and the House needs to know how this happened. And it’s our constitutional duty to find out.”
Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., said that the action isn’t “about Attorney General Holder or President Obama or anything else but this.” Rather, he said, “a man died serving his country, and we have a right to know what the federal government’s hand was in that. It’s clear this country somehow played a role in his death. We need to root it out, find the cause, and make sure this never, ever happens again.”
But Democrats and the White House kept emphasizing that even Issa has acknowledged that there is no evidence or suspicion that Holder personally knew of any misguided actions in “Fast and Furious.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that the Republican action has led to “a sad day and an irresponsible day--a day in which the majority party has asked us to take an action that has never been taken in the history of America--never once!--holding a Cabinet office in contempt" of Congress.
“Don’t do this,” Hoyer pleaded.
In the end, the vote fell almost entirely along party lines, despite the handful of Democratic defections. Racial overtones also came into play in the vote, as some black lawmakers and others were the first to talk about walking out and refusing to participate in the action against Holder, who is African-American. Pelosi said she had initially not planned to join the walkout, only vote against the resolution, but she said after listening to claims on the House floor of Republicans that perhaps walking out was the “best approach.”
“What is happening here is shameful. What is happening here is something we all have an obligation to speak out against,” Pelosi said.
The immediate impact of the House’s action is not likely to make much of a dent beyond any political repercussions.
What’s next to happen, according to Republican congressional sources, is that Issa and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee will likely file civil suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that Holder is in contempt and an injunction ordering him to comply in turning over the documents. But such an action could take years to be sorted out through any appeals process. The House could refer the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution of Holder in federal court. But it is likely that the District’s top prosecutor will simply put the case in his pocket.
The House’s actions on Thursday also included a vote holding Holder in civil contempt of Congress. That will allow Boehner and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to initiate civil court action and hire counsel for the purposes of pursuing action in civil court.