WASHINGTON, June 28 (UPI) -- Congress Thursday voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for not turning over documents in to the Fast and Furious gun-walking operation.
Congress voted 256-67 to make Holder the first Cabinet member ever held in contempt of Congress. The vote came after Holder declined to comply with subpoenas for documents relating to the controversial gun program, which was started under the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Seventeen Democrats joined the Republican majority in the vote, with more than 100 Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, walking out of the chamber as voting began.
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer accused Republicans of executing a politically motivated agenda, calling the vote "a politically transparent stunt."
"Republicans pushed for political theater rather than legitimate Congressional oversight," he said in a statement following the vote.
After the vote, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., moved to authorize the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its chairman, Darrel Issa, R-Calif., to obtain a court judgment enforcing its subpoenas of Justice Department officials, including Holder.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a District of Columbia Democrat, called the contempt resolution a "serious, baseless charge of coverup" and asserted Holder began an investigation into Fast and Furious when he learned of it and fired the Bush-era officials involved.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va, called the resolution "unfounded, unfair and unwise" noting Holder has already handed over "thousands of documents in response to multiple subpoenas" and blamed Bush's last attorney general, Michael Mukasey, for allowing the program to continue.
Holder issued a statement on the vote, saying:
"Today's vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided -- and politically motivated -- investigation during an election year. By advancing it over the past year and a half, Congressman Issa and others have focused on politics over public safety. …
"When concerns about Operation Fast and Furious first came to light, I took action -- and ordered an independent investigation into what happened. We learned that the flawed tactics used in this operation began in the previous administration -- but I made sure that they ended under this one. I also made sure that agents and prosecutors around the country knew that such tactics must never be used again. I put in place new policies, new safeguards, and new leadership to make certain of this -- and took extraordinary steps to facilitate robust congressional oversight. Let me be very clear -- that was my response to Operation Fast and Furious. Any suggestion to the contrary simply ignores the facts."
Before the vote, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the resolution "abusive" and "factually not true."
"I urge my colleagues to vote 'no' or not vote," Pelosi said. "It's Eric Holder one day, you don't know who it is the next."
Earlier, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the vote was part of lawmakers' constitutional duty.
"It's an unfortunate place where we are. But our members raise their right hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States. And we're going to do our job," Boehner said, vowing to press ahead with the civil and criminal contempt votes after the Justice Department refused to hand over all its memos and e-mails that reflect internal deliberations that took place after Congress began its inquiry into a botched gun-tracking operation.
The White House has invoked executive privilege in the matter.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, had appealed to Boehner to halt the precedent-setting action to hold a sitting attorney general in contempt.
He identified 100 "errors, omissions and mischaracterizations" in a report the committee drew up recommending the contempt citation.
The Fast and Furious dispute stems from an oversight committee claim the Justice Department may have sought to mislead the committee about the gun-tracking operation when it said incorrectly in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter the operation did not use a tactic, officially against Justice Department policy, called gun-walking.
The department later retracted that statement.
The 2009-11 Fast and Furious operation was part of a strategy begun during the Bush administration to combat Mexican drug and organized-crime cartels.
News reports have said the operation, run by Arizona agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, used gun-walking, which let suspected smugglers buy more than 2,000 firearms -- including AK-47 variants, .50-caliber sniper rifles, .38-caliber revolvers and semiautomatic pistols -- without intercepting the weapons.
The stated goal of permitting the purchases was to track the firearms as they were transferred to higher-level traffickers and key cartel figures, which would presumably lead to the figures' arrests and the cartels' dismantling. But the agents lost track of several hundred of the weapons.
Some guns later turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including that of a Dec. 14, 2010, shootout in which U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed.
The gun-walking operation became public after Terry's death, when enraged agents went to lawmakers about the operation.