WASHINGTON — House Republicans won a historic political fight to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress but the GOP likely is still a long way from obtaining documents it wants in an investigation of a bungled gun-tracking operation.
The road leading to a possible lawsuit by the House was filled with emotion June 28. More than 100 Democrats walked up an aisle and out of the chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.
Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns from the gun-tracking operation called Fast and Furious were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.
Democrats promised closure, as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation — not contempt resolutions — was the only way to get it.
Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.
It all happened on the day that President Barack Obama’s health care law survived in the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.
About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt — an action that could lead to criminal prosecution but probably won’t.
The matter goes to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who works under Holder.
In previous contempt cases, federal prosecutors in the nation’s capital have refused to act on congressional contempt citations against members of their own administration.
A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and allows the House to bring a civil lawsuit in an effort to force him to turn over the documents.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal position that is designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is conducting the investigation and subpoenaed the documents, will consult with the House counsel’s office about a court challenge to the administration’s decision not to cooperate, committee spokesman Frederick Hill said.
The June 28 debate was about Justice Department documents written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, when the Justice Department denied that guns purchased in the U.S. were allowed to “walk” across the border into Mexico, to early December 2011, when the department acknowledged the earlier assertion was in error.
Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over — without any preconditions — documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to come clean about gun-walking. The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered in the failed strategy to track the weapons to gun-running rings.
African-American lawmakers led the June 28 walkout of the House in support of Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, who joined them, protested that Republicans had gone “over the edge” in their partisanship.
Seventeen Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of the criminal contempt resolution, while two Republicans — Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio — joined other Democrats in voting against it.
Twenty-one Democrats supported the Republicans in the civil contempt vote but all the votes against the resolution came from Democrats.
The National Rifle Association pressed hard for the contempt resolutions, leaning on members of both parties who want to stay in the NRA’s good graces.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said all 17 Democrats who voted for criminal contempt had previously received an “A” grade from the organization.
The NRA contended the administration wanted to use Operation Fast and Furious to win gun control measures. Democrats who normally support the NRA but who voted against the contempt citations would lose any 100 percent ratings from the group.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.
*Pictured above is U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder