The Republican-controlled House on Thursday voted 255 to 67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a historic and divisive election-year action that GOP leaders cast as deadly serious and Democratic leaders dismiss as petty politics.
The unprecedented House censure of a sitting attorney general -- the Obama administration’s top lawyer – over Holder’s refusal to release internal documents tied to a botched gun-trafficking investigation saw both sides dig in. The White House asserted this week the documents are protected by executive privilege. Republicans pressed an emotional trump card that guns that slipped into the hands of drug cartels in the “Fast and Furious” operation have been linked to the deaths of a Border Patrol Agent, and hundreds of Mexicans, and the subpoenaed material would shed light about department actions in its aftermath.
The vote fell almost entirely along party lines, with just 17 Democratic defections and two Republican ones. Racial overtones came into play in the vote, as some Black lawmakers and others walked out, refusing to participate in the action against Holder, an African American.
The immediate impact of the House’s action – beyond any political repercussions – is almost nil. What’s likely next to happen, according Republican congressional sources, is that the lead House committee in the matter, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., will file civil suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that Holder is in contempt and an injunction ordering him to comply in turning over the documents. But that action could take years to be sorted out through any appeals process. The House also has the option of referring the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution of Holder in federal court, but Republicans know the department would probably refuse to charge its own leader.
Along with the contempt resolution, the House voted Thursday to authorize the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to initiate some legal action.