WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., in contempt for failing to disclose internal Justice Department documents in response to a subpoena. It was the first time in U.S. history that Congress had imposed that sanction on a sitting member of a president's Cabinet.
The vote -- 255-67, with one member voting present -- followed an acrimonious and politically charged debate. Many Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest without voting, accusing Republicans of railroading the motion so they could inflict political damage on the Obama Administration during an election year.
The dispute centers on whether the Justice Department must turn over emails and memoranda showing its internal deliberations last year as officials grappled with a congressional investigation about the botched Arizona-based gunrunning investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious. President Obama has invoked executive privilege to block the subpoena.
In early jostling Thursday, Republicans repeatedly invoked the death of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in a shootout in December, 2010. Two guns that had been purchased by a suspect in the gunrunning case the previous January were found near the scene.
"These contempt charges aren't about politics," said Rep. Rich Nugent (R., Fla.), "They aren't about Attorney General Holder or President Obama or anything else but this: 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."
Democrats dismissed the effort as an election-year witch hunt. They said previously disclosed documents and testimony had established that Fast and Furious was the work of Arizona-based law enforcement officials who were frustrated by the difficulty of bringing low-level gun cases, and they contended that Republicans were seeking to embarrass Mr. Holder for political reasons.
"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. They expect -- and they deserve -- far better," Mr. Holder said in New Orleans.
The attorney general said the House vote would result in an unnecessary court fight.
With Republicans in the majority in the House, there was little doubt that the final vote would be to cite Mr. Holder for contempt, as well as to authorize a lawsuit asking a judge to order the Justice Department to turn over the documents.
The only question was how many Democrats would cross party lines to join in citing Holder. The National Rifle Association was pressuring them to do so, announcing that it would score the vote in its report card on how lawmakers approached Second Amendment gun rights.
In the end, 17 Democrats voted yes. Two Republicans -- Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio -- joined other Democrats in voting against it.
The walkout echoed one by many Republicans in 2008, when the House, led by Democrats, cited two Bush administration officials for contempt in a dispute over information related to a mass firing of U.S. attorneys.
"We're going to make it clear we're disappointed with the process and the superficiality with which this matter has been dealt with," Steny H. Hoyer (D., Md.), the House minority whip, said.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said she joined the Democrats who walked out in protest of the vote rather than cast a vote.
"I think that this is a political stunt four months before the election," she said. "There's a huge amount of gun trafficking and drug trafficking across our border, and I don't think the operations that are being conducted by our government to try to stem that illegal trade . . . should be exposed to public inquiry right now. Arizona is a place where gun trafficking is out of control."
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) defended the vote, saying the Department of Justice failed to cooperate with a congressional subpoena for documents detailing "this tragic and reckless program."
"The facts of this dangerous operation must be uncovered and it is Congress' duty to hold Attorney General Holder accountable for blocking the investigation and force him to comply," he said.
A citation for contempt of Congress carries symbolic weight, but its practical impact is limited because the executive branch controls prosecution decisions.
Fast and Furious was an investigation by Phoenix-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives into a gun-smuggling network that recruited low-level "straw buyers" -- people without criminal records who could lawfully purchase weapons -- to buy guns, which were then funneled to a Mexican drug cartel.
The investigation, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011, is controversial because investigators, frustrated at the difficulty of bringing cases against suspected straw buyers, are said to have used the risky tactic of "gunwalking." They sometimes failed to swiftly interdict weapons and arrest low-level suspects because they were trying to build a bigger case.
The suspects under scrutiny ended up purchasing about 2,000 guns, most of which are presumed to have reached drug gangs. In December, 2010, two weapons that had been purchased by one of the suspected straw buyers for the network were found at the site of a shootout where Agent Terry was killed.
Information has since emerged that the Phoenix division of the ATF had a dispute with Arizona-based federal prosecutors over how much evidence was necessary to bring charges in straw-purchasing cases.
The Associated Press and Blade staff contributed to this report.