Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday became the first cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress as a result of his refusal to turn over about 1,500 additional pages of documents related to the gun-tracking program Operation Fast and Furious.
As a vote on criminal contempt took place, the Congressional Black Caucus led a walkout protesting the measure, which passed by 255 to 67, with 108 Democrats not voting at all. They were joined by members of the Progressive, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific Islander caucuses, as well as the Democrats' top three leaders. At a press conference that followed the walkout, one close to 100 lawmakers collectively chanted "Shame on you," in response to their Republican colleagues' action.
"This is about non-participation in contrivance and connivance," said CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver. “This is a terrible day for the House of Representatives. What this is about, we can’t decide for sure. But, it certainly is not about Eric Holder or holding back documents. We did not want to participate in something that we believe will have some kind of smell to it."
The House later passed a measure to hold the attorney general in civil contempt by 258 to 95.
One CBC member was absent from the protest. Rep. Allen West, the caucus's only Republican, blasted his fellow CBCers for pulling a "political stunt" and accused them of judging Holder "by the colorof his skin and not by the content of his character." Democrats have in fact been very careful to not accuse Republicans of being racially motivated, although some view suspicously attacks by congressional lawmakers on Holder's efforts to stem laws that would lead to voter suppression.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched the controversial program to send guns into Mexico and trace where they ended up. Of the more than 2,000 firearms that crossed the border, 1,700 have been lost. In addition, some have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., including the December 2010 shootout that resulted in the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Speaking from the U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans Thursday afternoon, Holder defended his handling of Fast and Furious, which included launching an independent investigation and putting in place "new policies, new safeguards and new leadership." Instead of being good-faith partners in this effort, he added, some lawmakers have focosed on making "reckless charges unsupported by fact" to advance "truly absurd conspiracy theories."
"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," Holder said.
There was little question how Republicans would vote, but 17 Democrats also voted in favor of the contempt citation, ceding to pressure from the influential National Rifle Association (NRA), which had asserted that the Obama administration used Fast and Furious to make a case for gun control.
"The interesting thing about this whole situation is that when the whistle blowers came before our committee, they said the number-one thing they wanted was stricter gun laws and that it would prevent incidents like the killing of Brian Terry," Cummings told BET.com. "That's the one thing that Republicans won't touch because of the NRA."
Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn denounced House Republicans for what he called political gamesmanship and an unwillingness to work with President Obama and Democrats on job creation.
"This isn't oversight. This is overkill," he said.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Bill Haber)