The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, bringing to a head a simmering struggle between congressional Republicans and a Democratic administration.
In the first such action against a sitting attorney general, the House voted overwhelmingly against Holder even as nearly 100 Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest of what they called a political stunt. Seventeen Democrats joined with Republicans in voting to hold Holder in contempt.
The House is scheduled to vote later on a civil contempt resolution.
The vote comes after Holder refused to hand over documents related to the botched Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. President Obama invoked executive privilege to shield the documents from lawmakers' scrutiny, but that appeared only to anger Republicans.
Republicans say Obama's action forced their unprecedented vote, which at this point carries more symbolic heft than any real legal repercussions for Holder.
Though the matter is unlikely to be resolved for months, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle refused to blink on Thursday.
“The Justice Department did not provide the facts and information we requested,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The administration admitted misleading Congress. The only recourse for the House is to continue seeking the truth.”
Declaring the investigation of Fast and Furious and the resulting vote a “witch hunt,” Democratic lawmakers, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, walked out of the proceedings.
“What [Republicans] are doing is exploiting a very unfortunate circumstance for reasons that I cannot even characterize,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling the motion a “heinous act.” “I’m telling you: It’s Eric Holder today, anybody else tomorrow.”
Under Fast and Furious, U.S. guns were allowed to flow into Mexico so they could be tracked to drug traffickers. But the guns began turning up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. border agent.
The Justice Department earlier this week delivered reams of documents to congressional staffers in hopes of satisfying the demands of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. But no deal was reached, leading to Thursday’s showdown.
In 2008, Republicans walked out of the House when Democrats pushed similar contempt charges against Bush administration officials during an investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys.