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For the first time in history, the House on Thursday held a Cabinet member in contempt of Congress, bringing to a head an epic clash between House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Attorney General Eric Holder and paving the way for a protracted court battle over whether the Justice Department can shield internal documents under executive privilege.
The 255-67 vote was particularly lopsided because dozens of Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and the Congressional Black Caucus, walked off the floor, refusing to participate in what they called an “illegitimate” charade.
Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans in voting to hold Holder in contempt. It was a repudiation by members of his own party and a sign of the political stakes of a vote the National Rifle Association will score. Two Republicans voted against contempt, Reps. Scott Rigell (Va.) and Steven LaTourette (Ohio). Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) voted present.
Speaking on the East Front of the Capitol after the walk-out, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who chairs the CBC, said, “We are nonparticipants in what we believe to be a calamity.”
Speaker John Boehner said the contempt vote was necessary to defend Congress’ constitutional oversight authority and to get to the bottom of a botched gun-smuggling investigation that played a role in the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
“I don’t take this matter lightly, and I, frankly, hoped it would never come to this. The House was focused on jobs and the economy. But no Justice Department is above the law,” Boehner said on the House floor.
Democratic leadership ripped the GOP for “rushing” into the vote,
“What the Republicans are doing with this motion on the floor today is contemptible — even for them — it’s contemptible,” Pelosi said at a briefing earlier in the day.
Holder was far away, giving a speech to a conference at a Disney resort in Orlando, Fla. After the vote, Holder said at a briefing that “today’s vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided — and politically motivated — investigation during an election year.”
Democrats focused in particular on the timing of the vote, held one week after the Oversight and Government Reform Committee recommended contempt and on the same day the Supreme Court announced its health care decision.
On the floor, Hoyer said the average length for contempt proceedings between a committee vote and the floor vote was 87 days.
Pelosi compared the contempt vote with proceedings in 2008, when the Democratic-led House held two White House aides from the George W. Bush administration — counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten — in contempt of Congress.