In 255-67 vote, House places Holder in contempt of Congress

The House voted Thursday to place Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not complying with a congressional subpoena.

Seventeen Democrats bucked party lines and voted with Republicans to pass a criminal contempt resolution in a 255-67 vote. House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) pushed that resolution as part of his 16-month investigation into the  botched "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking operation.

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Only two Republicans voted "no" on the measure, while 65 Democrats recorded "no" votes and 108 Democrats didn't cast votes. Most of them were protesting the fact that the House GOP was holding the vote.

The two Republican "no" votes were Reps. Steve LaTourette (Ohio) and Scott Rigell (Va.). Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) was the only "present" vote from either party.

Democrats voting for the resolution were Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), John Barrow (Ga.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Mark Critz (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), Ron Kind (Wis.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Bill Owens (N.Y.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Tim Walz (Minn.).

The Department of Justice is not expected to enforce the criminal contempt measure against Holder. But less than an hour later, the House also passed a separate resolution allowing Issa's committee to pursue civil court action against Holder.

That second resolution could lead to a lengthy court battle if Issa pursues civil action against Holder.

The House approved the civil resolution in a 258-95 vote that saw 21 Democrats vote with Republicans, and just 70 Democrats skip the vote.

In between votes, LaTourette told The Hill he would vote in favor of the civil contempt citation, but thought finding Holder in criminal contempt was a step too far at this point.

"I was going back and forth," he said. "While I certainly think the attorney general should hand over what he's been asked to hand over, I think the second vote takes care of it ... to initiate a civil proceeding and have a judicial order. Criminal contempt is a big step, and I thought the first step should be taken before the second step."

While 17 Democrats sided with Republicans in the main contempt vote, it was met with outrage from Democrats. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), joined by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and many other Democrats, staged a walkout during the vote as Democrats charged the GOP with staging a witch hunt against Holder that demeans the lower chamber.

Pelosi said during the debate that she would join the walkout, and told Democrats it's up to them whether to stay and vote against the resolution, or leave.

"So now I say to those who have a doubt about how they want to proceed, that instead of doing what I said before — which was just to come and to treat this as a bill before the Congress and express my 'no' — listening to the unconscionable presentation, I want to join my CBC colleagues in boycotting the vote when we have the walkout after we have the debate," she said.

Several other Democrats also charged Republicans with making political hay against the Obama administration to help them in the November elections.

"When the history of this despicable proceeding is recorded, it will be said that your actions were politically motivated to discredit and defeat a president who has worked so hard over the past three years," Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) declared on the House floor during debate on the rule.

But Republicans decried Holder's refusal to hand over documents relating to the Justice Department's reaction to Operation Fast and Furious as nothing less than a "cover-up," and pointed to President Obama's assertion of executive privilege over the material as evidence of the administration's lack of transparency.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a rare appearance on the floor to call for support for the resolution.

"I don't take this matter lightly, and I frankly hoped it would never come to this," Boehner said about an hour before voting started.

"But no Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold," he said. "So I ask the members of this body to come together and to support this resolution."

Before the final vote, the House rejected a motion from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) to recommit the resolution to Issa's committee. That motion failed 172-251, after which dozens of Democrats left the chamber.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa has led Congress's investigation of Fast and Furious, which oversaw the sale of nearly 2,000 firearms to straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels.

Issa was initially concerned with uncovering who was responsible for allowing guns to "walk" during the operation. But he recently switched the primary concentration of his probe to focus on the DOJ's internal communications after the details of the operation were made public.

At the center of the feud between the DOJ and Issa is a letter the department sent last year to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) stating that it does everything in its power to stop guns from going to Mexico. Ten months later, the DOJ took the rare step of withdrawing the letter because it contained false information.

Nearly two months before the DOJ rescinded the letter, Issa subpoenaed Holder for documents related to the fallout that the letter's misinformation had caused.

But after turning over about 7,600 pages of documents to Issa on Fast and Furious, the Attorney General has refused to comply with the remainder of the subpoena, stating that much of the requested information would jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and criminal cases if made public.

After attempts at negotiating a compromise failed last week, the president — at Holder's urging — asserted executive privilege over the documents in question.

The DOJ's inspector general has been investigating the failed operation for more than a year as well. And Issa says he should have access to the roughly 80,000 documents that the IG has received from the DOJ.

— Russell Berman contributed.

— This story was update at 5:35 p.m. to reflect the second vote.