The Dead Mexicans and our Border Agent just won’t go away …
The Republican-led House of Representatives on Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.in contempt for failing to disclose internal Justice Department documents in response to a subpoena. It was the first time in American history that Congress has imposed the sanction on a sitting member of a president’s cabinet.
The politically and constitutionally charged dispute centered on whether the Justice Department must turn over e-mails and memorandums showing its internal deliberations last year about the botched Arizona-based gunrunning investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious. President Obama has invoked executive privilege to block the subpoena.
The vote — 255 to 67, with one Democrat voting present — followed an acrimonious debate that played out.
Scores of Democrats, accusing Republicans of abusing their power to engineer an election-year “partisan witch hunt,” walked out of the chamber in protest and cast no votes, punctuating a day filled with bitter, sharp-edged rhetoric.
The contempt citations are likely to have little practical impact. The criminal referral was sent to the Justice Department, which will decline to pursue it, as George W. Bush’s Justice Department declined to pursue contempt citations passed in 2008 against White House officials. A civil citation approved Thursday by the House will not wind its way through the courts until long after Mr. Holder’s announced departure at the end of this year.
But the citations could be seen as a stain on the attorney general’s record. House Democrats said Mr. Holder talked to Democrats at a White House picnic on Wednesday to hold Democratic yes votes to a minimum.
Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, who has led the House investigation into Fast and Furious, said the vote was necessary to hold Mr. Holder accountable for what he portrayed as “lies and a cover-up exclusively within his jurisdiction.”
The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, called the unprecedented vote a “heinous act” and an “unprincipled” effort on the part of the Republicans. Echoing other Democrats, she complained that the Republicans had rushed the floor consideration less than a week after Mr. Issa’s committee recommended it on a party-line vote.
Mr. Holder, a recurring target for conservatives, is associated with some of the administration’s most liberal policies on matters like gay rights, civilian trials in terrorism cases and the enforcement of civil rights laws.
In a statement, the White House accused House Republicans of engaging in “political theater rather than legitimate Congressional oversight.” It also noted that a day earlier, Mr. Issa said his investigation had uncovered no evidence and now had no strong suspicion that Mr. Holder had known about or authorized a tactic used in Fast and Furious called gunwalking. Under the practice, investigators do not swiftly interdict weapons and arrest low-level suspects in an effort to build a larger case.
But Mr. Issa has insisted that Congress had a right to see the documents, which cover a period last year after the gun-smuggling case had been shut down. Republicans, citing a false statement in a February 2011 letter the Justice Department sent to Congress and later retracted, want to determine whether officials engaged in a cover-up by willfully misleading Congress.
With Republicans in the majority in the House, there was little doubt that the final vote would be to cite Mr. Holder for contempt. The only question was how many Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts would cross party lines to join that effort. 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. They included some of the most endangered incumbents, among them Representatives Larry Kissell of North Carolina, Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Kathy Hochul of New York. Representative Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is running for the Senate, also voted yes. The group Gun Owners of America released a letter this week demanding a yes from Mr. Donnelly.
The two Republicans who voted no were Representatives Scott Rigell, a freshman from a Virginia district with a large African-American population, and Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, an outspoken moderate.
Operation Fast and Furious was conducted from late 2009 to early 2011 by Phoenix-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who were looking into a gun-smuggling network linked to a Mexican drug cartel.
Suspected “straw” purchasers for the network ended up acquiring about 2,000 guns, most of which are presumed to have reached drug gangs. In December 2010, two weapons that had been bought by one of the suspects were found at the site of a shootout in which a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed, setting off the scandal.
Some Republicans and conservative commentators have claimed that senior Obama administration officials must have initiated or authorized the tactics. But public testimony and documents have not produced evidence to support such claims. Information has emerged, however, showing that the Phoenix division of the A.T.F. had a running dispute with Arizona-based prosecutors over how much evidence was necessary to bring charges in straw-purchasing cases, and that its agents had used similar tactics — and lost track of guns — in three other investigations, during the Bush administration.
While the documents in dispute date from 2011, after Fast and Furious was over, Republicans framed their move as being about getting answers and justice for Agent Terry’s family. “It’s our responsibility to investigate when things go wrong, and things went wrong — an agent of the United States was murdered,” said Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, accusing Mr. Holder of “showing contempt for the Congress.”
The Obama administration has been preparing a letter to the House speaker, John A. Boehner, saying that it will not prosecute Mr. Holder for criminal contempt because the Justice Department does not consider it to be a crime to fail to provide information over which a president has asserted executive privilege, officials familiar with the discussions said.
Four more Democrats — and all Republicans — voted for a separate resolution authorizing a lawsuit that would ask a judge to order the Justice Department to comply with its subpoena, setting up a test of Mr. Obama’s assertion of a form of executive privilege that protects agency deliberations from disclosure.
The Justice Department had offered to give Congress several hundred of the disputed documents if Republicans scrapped the contempt recommendation. The White House on Tuesday allowed Republican staff members to scan about a dozen of them, which it portrayed as a representative sample. But the two sides failed to reach a deal.
“My efforts to resolve this matter short of such a battle were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and his supporters,” Mr. Holder said after the vote. “It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or obtaining the information they claimed to seek.”
Mr. Issa cited the votes of the 17 Democrats in favor of contempt, saying a “bipartisan majority” supported the inquiry.
“This was not the outcome I had sought,” Mr. Issa said, “and it could have been avoided had Attorney General Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide.”