The House on Thursday cited Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for contempt of Congress in a vote weighted with political significance — though it does little to break the stalemate over his decision to withhold documents over the Justice Department’s actions in a botched gun-walking operation.
The House voted 255-67 to hold him in criminal contempt in a vote that amounted to a political spanking for Mr. Holder and President Obama, underscored by the 17 Democrats who joined the GOP.
Most Democrats walked out of the vote in a protest led by the Congressional Black Caucus.
It marks the first time an attorney general has been held in contempt by a chamber of Congress.
“We’ve shown more than enough good faith, but the White House has chosen to invoke executive privilege. That leaves us no other options,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner. “The only recourse left for the House is to continue seeking the truth and to hold attorney general in contempt of Congress.”
Speaking in New Orleans after the vote, Mr. Holder called it “misguided and political” and said he ended the gun-walking program once he learned of it — though that was after guns involved were found at the site of a shootout that left a Border Patrol agent dead.
Mr. Holder said he thought Republicans were retaliating against him because he’s blocked voter-identification laws in Republican states, and he repeatedly chided the GOP for even making the attempt.
“Today’s vote may make for good political theater in the minds of some, but it is, at base, both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people,” he said. “They expect — and deserve — far better.”
Minutes after the criminal contempt vote, the House voted 258-95 to pursue a civil contempt case against Mr. Holder in court, with 21 Democrats joining that effort.
The National Rifle Association had announced it would score a vote for contempt in its powerful year-end review of lawmakers’ records, which helped build bipartisan support for the GOP’s move. Two Republicans did vote against the criminal contempt resolution, but voted for the civil proceedings.
The votes do nothing to resolve the impasse over documents, though they further poisoned feelings in an already bitterly divided chamber.
Democrats pleaded with the GOP to slow down the proceedings, saying the oversight committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, has done a shoddy job in putting together its investigation.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, even introduced a resolution demanding that the House reprimand Mr. Issa for partisanship and accusing him of having “engaged in a witch hunt.”
Many Democrats walked out of the first contempt vote in protest, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the vote was a black eye for the GOP.
“Just when you think you have seen it all. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly go any further over the edge, they come up with something like this,” she said. “What is happening here is shameful.”
Democrats also tried to force the matter back into Mr. Issa's committee, but the House defeated that motion.
At issue is the oversight committee’s investigation into Fast and Furious, an operation intended to track sales of U.S. guns and watch the guns be shipped across the border to a Mexican drug cartel, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lost track of the roughly 2,000 weapons after they were sold.
Some of the guns eventually began showing up at crime scenes, including two that were recovered at the site of a 2010 Arizona shootout that left Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry dead.
Mr. Holder shut down the operation, but his efforts to clean up after it have come under scrutiny. The Justice Department initially told Congress it never knowingly lost track of guns, but after whistleblowers made clear that was the case, Mr. Holder had to withdraw that claim.
The Justice Department turned over documents about the actual gun-walking operation, but has refused to turn over documents about how it handled the false information it provided to Congress. Last week President Obama asserted executive privilege, arguing those documents are protected by precedent that governs internal deliberations.
Democrats said they aren’t defending the gun-walking operation, but said the committee should leave Mr. Holder alone.
Republicans, though, said they have issued a valid subpoena, and said Mr. Holder is stonewalling. They said they are trying to hold the administration accountable and to try to get answers for the Terry family.
Mr. Issa even closed out the debate speaking in front of a giant poster of the agent in his Border Patrol uniform, saying he was trying to remind his colleagues of the human cost of the gun-walking operation.
“We were lied to repeatedly, and over a 10-month period,” Mr. Issa said. “That is what we’re here for.”