- The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 255-67 in favor of finding Holder in contempt of Congress
- No sitting Cabinet member had ever been found in contempt by Congress before today
- 100 Democrats led by Congressional Black Caucus members, as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi walked out and refused to vote
- Overshadowed the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of President Obama’s controversial healthcare law
By James Nye
PUBLISHED: 16:08 EST, 28 June 2012 | UPDATED: 17:30 EST, 28 June 2012
The mostly partisan vote of 255-67 marked the first time a sitting attorney general and presidential Cabinet member was cited for contempt by the full House. No Senate vote will be necessary in this House contempt citation.
While 17 Democrats backed the censure, many refused to cast votes and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi led many of her colleagues in a walkout from the House floor in protest.
Following the vote holding him in contempt of Congress, Holder, speaking from New Orleans railed against what he called ‘truly absurd conspiracy theories’.
‘I had hoped that Congressional leaders would be good-faith partners in this work,’ said Holder.
‘And some were. Others, however, have devoted their time and energy to [creating political theater] and truly absurd – truly absurd – conspiracy theories.’
In a previous statement he had made in Florida, Holder was equally scathing.
‘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 deserve — far better,’ said Holder on Thursday evening.
The White House also issued a statement, condemning the contempt vote as a political gesture.
‘Unfortunately, a politically-motivated agenda prevailed and instead of engaging with the President in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy, today we saw the House of Representatives perform a transparently political stunt,’ said the White House this evening.
Later in the day, the House also was scheduled to vote on a resolution asking U.S. courts to force Holder to turn over documents being sought by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of its long-running investigation of the Fast and Furious.
WHAT NOW FOR HOLDER?
- The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia will send the contempt citation to a grand jury, however, the U.S. attorney works for Holder, making that a highly unlikely outcome.
- A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recommended the contempt vote after President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege to deny its subpoena asking that Holder hand over documents related to Fast and Furious. That same claim of executive privilege could cover Holder from a grand jury.
The Attorney General said that he had taken steps to ‘facilitate robust congressional oversight’ and that he had tried to work with Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and his allies.
‘My efforts to resolve this matter short of such a battle were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and his supporters. It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or obtaining the information they claimed to seek. Ultimately, their goal was the vote that — with the help of special interests — they now have engineered,’ said Holder.
That could lead to a prolonged court fight with an uncertain outcome while a judge weighed the House demand against the Obama administration’s claim of executive privilege to protect the documents.
The unprecedented House rebuke of Holder was overshadowed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of Democratic President Barack Obama’s controversial healthcare law – a ruling that was reverberating throughout the country.
Nevertheless, the House devoted much of its legislative session on Thursday to a sometimes bitter debate over Holder’s role in ‘Operation Fast and Furious,’ which was aimed at following guns being purchased in Arizona to determine whether they flowed into Mexico for use by drug cartels.
The Justice Department initially denied that a program was being run that allowed some guns to ‘walk’ into Mexico – a contention it later retracted, raising Republican suspicions.
According to government figures, between 2007-2011, of 99,000 firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted to U.S. law enforcement, more than 68,000 came from the United States. In recent years, those weapons have shifted more and more from handguns to high-powered rifles.
By early 2011, Fast and Furious had been terminated after disclosures that federal agents had lost track of many of the high-powered weapons, which subsequently were traced to crimes, including the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
House Republicans and Democrats have engaged in arguments all year over issues ranging from budget and taxes to contraceptives. Thursday’s debate was no exception.
Republican Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the Arizona law enforcement operation ‘reckless.’
Issa added the contempt vote was being held ‘because when we asked legitimate questions … about Fast and Furious, we were lied to. We were lied to repeatedly and over a 10-month period.’
Pelosi accused Republicans of using the election-year contempt charge to undermine Holder’s efforts to combat voter suppression in some states.
‘This is something that makes a witch hunt look like a day at the beach,’ Pelosi told reporters. ‘It is a railroading of a (contempt) resolution that is unsubstantiated by the facts.’
The tussle between the Obama administration and House Republicans is over the release of a series of documents dating from February 4, 2011, when the Justice Department initially denied that guns were being allowed to ‘walk’ into Mexico.
The dispute is both legal and political. Republicans asserted their right to obtain documents needed for an investigation of Operation Fast and Furious — focusing on 10 months in 2011 after the Obama administration initially denied guns were allowed to ‘walk’ from Arizona to Mexico. By year’s end, the administration acknowledged the assertion was wrong.
President Barack Obama asserted a broad form of executive privilege, a legal position designed to keep executive branch documents from being disclosed. The assertion ensures that documents will not be turned over any time soon, unless a deal is reached between the administration and congressional Republicans.
In debate, however, Republicans framed the issue as the need for closure for the family of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in December 2010 in a shootout with Mexican bandits. Two guns from Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
Democrats said the contempt issue was a political stunt to embarrass the Obama administration in an election year, and added that holding the attorney general in contempt will do nothing to bring closure to Terry’s family.
For the past year and a half, some Republicans have promoted the idea that Holder and other top-level officials at the Justice Department knew federal agents in Operation Fast and Furious had engaged in gun-walking.
Two of Holder’s emails and one from Deputy Attorney General James Cole in early 2011 appear to show that they hadn’t known about gun-walking but were determined to find out whether the allegations were true.
“We need answers on this. Not defensive BS. Real answers,” Holder wrote.
The Justice Department showed the e-mails on Tuesday to Republican and Democratic staffers of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, whose chairman is Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in an effort to ward off the criminal contempt vote against the attorney general.
The full contents of the emails were described to The Associated Press by two people who have seen them. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about them publicly.
Holder has refused to turn over these and other communications unless the oversight panel dropped its subpoena for the records — a condition unacceptable to Issa.
The department withdrew the Feb. 4 letter denying gun walking took place on Dec. 2, 2011, after documenting what had taken place not only in Operation Fast and Furious, but in three other gun-walking operations going back to 2006.
In Operation Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in abandoned the agency’s usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as “gun-walking” was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in that operation.
The high-stakes fight could jeopardize the jobs of some top Justice Department officials if Congress ultimately finds that they were hiding some important information related to Fast and Furious.
Conversely, Republicans could be embarrassed if nothing turns up and they devoted so much time and energy amid the need to help the struggling U.S. economy – the top priority of voters in the run-up to the November 6 presidential and congressional elections.
The National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying organization that opposes gun regulation, has made the Holder contempt move a top priority. It has warned all 435 House members that a vote against the contempt citation would be a black mark against them.
The NRA has argued that Fast and Furious was actually a back-door move by the Obama administration to lay the ground for new gun regulations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the southwest border gun-running investigation.
Obama administration officials point out that the Justice Department already has released more than 7,000 documents to Issa’s committee and that they showed that top officials in Washington initially knew little about Fast and Furious, which was hatched by law enforcement officials in Arizona.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have complained that Issa has rejected their calls to investigate Bush administration gun probes similar to Fast and Furious.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (left) defended the decision to find Holder in contempt while Republican Elijah Cummings (right) is seen testifying to the House Rules Committee
The fight between Republicans and Holder escalated last week, after the White House exerted ‘executive privilege’ over the post-February 4, 2011, documents, saying they were protected communications that any administration needs as part of its deliberative process.
Issa’s committee, in a partisan vote last week, charged Holder with contempt after negotiations to resolve the dispute failed. House Republican leaders immediately announced that the full House debate and vote would come quickly.
While contempt of Congress charges generally are aimed at forcing officials to produce information to Congress, legal experts point out that they are very hard to enforce and the action could bring months or years of litigation and stalemate.