WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress on Thursday for refusing to turn over internal documents discussing the Justice Department’s botched Operation Fast and Furious gun-tracking program.
Republicans said they needed to take the extreme step because Holder is refusing to turn over internal emails discussing the Justice Department’s discussions of the operation. They say they need the documents since Holder first denied any personal knowledge of the operation and then acknowledged he was aware of it. Democrats called the charges an effort to embarrass the Obama administration in an election year, with some accusing the Republicans of racism for challenging the African-American attorney general.
The votes to hold Holder in both civil and criminal contempt made him the first sitting U.S. attorney general ever held in contempt by the House.
The House voted 255-67 to hold Holder in criminal contempt. One lawmaker, Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., voted “present.”
Following warnings from the politically powerful National Rifle Association that it considered the actions against Holder a loyalty test, 17 Democrats voted with Republicans for contempt. Only two Republicans, Reps. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Scott Rigell of Virginia, voted no.
The civil contempt count passed 258-95 with five Democrats voting “present.” Twenty-one Democrats voted with Republicans and 85 Democrats didn’t vote.
Holder, who was in Orlando, Fla., addressing the League of United Latin American Citizens convention Thursday, defiantly denounced the votes as “the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year.”
“As a result of the action taken today by the House, an unnecessary court conflict will ensue,” he said. “It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or even obtaining the information they say they wanted.”
More than half of the House’s 191 Democrats marched out of the chamber before the first vote to protest the proceedings rather than cast ballots. Some accused the Republicans of racism for challenging Holder.
“This is not about oversight, this is about overkill,” House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told reporters outside the Capitol. “We’re here to say today that we believe that there’s something evil about using procedures of the House, particularly something as severe as holding someone in contempt of Congress, to serve political ends.”
The walkout exemplified an angry, sometimes personal debate in which Democrats accused Republicans of conducting a politically motivated attack to discredit Holder and weaken President Barack Obama in an election year.
Republicans, in turn, charged Democrats with helping Holder’s Justice Department withhold documents — and the truth — behind Fast and Furious, stalling an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Under Fast and Furious, about 2,500 illegal weapons were circulated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Two of those weapons were recovered at the scene of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010.
The Justice Department has refused to turn over documents subpoenaed by the committee, saying it had already provided the committee more than 7,000 pages of materials related to Fast and Furious. Obama last week asserted executive privilege, blocking release of the additional materials.
“What percentage of the truth do you want?” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said on the House floor. “The truth, the whole truth, so help me God. That’s what we ask witnesses to do, that’s what we ask jurors to do, and that’s not too much for us to ask the attorney general of the United States to do.”
“It’s about racism,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said taking the nation’s first African-American attorney general to task had nothing to do with the color of Holder’s skin.
“Throughout our nation and specifically in Arizona, folks from all political parties and all races are now living in danger of grave violence due to actions of this administration,” he said. “I am convinced that holding the attorney general in contempt is the only way to send a strong message to this administration and future ones that no one is above the law.”
©2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau