WASHINGTON - In an unprecedented move, US lawmakers voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, ratcheting up an election-year showdown between the Obama administration and its Republican foes in Congress.
Several furious Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi, the party's top member in the House of Representatives, stormed out of the chamber at the start of the vote, which was called because Holder withheld documents related to a botched gun-running operation.
They were protesting what they say is highly political and partisan action by Republicans to railroad the contempt vote through the House and discredit Holder and President Barack Obama's administration ahead of the November elections.
But after two hours of often-acrimonious debate, the resolution was adopted with a vote of 255-67 in the Republican-led House. Several dozen Democrats refused to participate, but 17 in Obama's party also voted to find the nation's top justice official in criminal contempt.
The move paves the way for legal action over a probe into botched gun-running Operation Fast and Furious, and Holder's failure to turn over internal Justice Department documents and emails sought through subpoena by a congressional panel conducting the 16-month investigation.
The House also passed a second resolution on civil contempt, which would authorize the panel to sue the department in federal court to compel officials to relinquish the documents.
The contempt finding, the first-ever for a sitting member of a president's cabinet, was immediately branded by the White House as a "transparently political stunt."
"Republicans pushed for political theater rather than legitimate congressional oversight," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.
"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."
Launched in Arizona by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fast and Furious was a sting operation designed to track weapons purchased by straw buyers and smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.
But a large number of the arms went missing, and two were later found at the murder scene of a US border patrol agent.
Republican Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee which led the investigation, is seeking to discover who in the government knew about the operation and when, and whether there was a Justice Department cover-up.
Holder called the historic vote against him "unnecessary and unwarranted" and defended his role at the helm of justice, saying he put in place new safeguards to prevent future gun-running and "took extraordinary steps to facilitate robust congressional oversight."
"Today's vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year," he said at an event in Florida.
"By advancing it over the past year and a half, congressman Issa and others have focused on politics over public safety."
Pelosi lashed out at the "contemptible" action of Republicans, expressing exasperation with her conservative colleagues bent on rushing the censure resolution instead of negotiating a solution with administration officials.
"It makes a witch-hunt look like a day at the beach," she said.
But senior Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who helped bring the scandal to light in 2010 when whistleblowers told him about troubles with Fast and Furious, said the move wasn't political but a vital pursuit of legal action to find out exactly what happened.
"When a person dies in service to his country, and his own government may have contributed to his death, covered up evidence about the circumstances, or both, the survivors' families and the American people have a right to know the truth," Grassley said.
Holder has testified about the scandal nine times and turned over 7,600 documents, but Issa says that is less than 10 percent of the material being sought.
Issa is seeking documents that show why the Justice Department retracted as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to lawmakers that said senior officials were unaware of Operation Fast and Furious -- and why the retraction took 10 months.
At Holder's request, Obama last week asserted executive privilege over documents containing internal deliberations related to the probe.
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