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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.
In the 2008 contempt proceedings, the Judiciary Committee, then led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), approved contempt July 25, 2007, and the House approved contempt Feb. 14, 2008.
Negotiations continued during that time, and the Bush administration made several concessions, including informal interviews with White House advisers. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was then a member of House leadership, also privately urged against the contempt vote on political grounds, delaying it.
In the Holder contempt proceedings, Issa issued subpoenas in October. Since then, the DOJ produced more than 7,600 pages of documents but withheld a far larger universe of at least 80,000 pages of documents.
Issa released a draft contempt report May 3 and, after GOP leadership intervened to stall the effort for weeks, scheduled the committee’s contempt vote for June 20.
At an eleventh-hour meeting in the Capitol to stave off the committee vote for the next day, Holder told Issa that if he proceeded with contempt, his cooperation would cease entirely, Republicans said.
The next morning, minutes before the committee convened, President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over a key category of documents on which Issa had narrowed his focus.
Since the contempt vote, the only communication between the two sides was a staff-level meeting at the White House on Tuesday, during which Obama’s counsel and legislative director reiterated the offer made by Holder at the Capitol.
The DOJ has offered to provide an “illustrative sample” of the documents, a briefing about them and a promise to answer any questions. In return, Issa would have to absolve Holder of compliance with two Congressional subpoenas that demand a far broader universe of documents than the key category under discussion.
Republicans say Holder’s offer is unacceptable because they would have to agree to let go of their demands in return for a set of documents they have not yet seen.
They also describe the DOJ’s negotiating stance as unusually inflexible, citing past instances when administrations would cough up new sets of documents when contempt hearings or House votes were scheduled.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House leadership considered holding the vote earlier so that it wouldn’t be on the day of the high court’s ruling. But that would have required waiving additional procedural rules, something the GOP had criticized when Democrats used the “deem and pass” procedural maneuver on the Miers and Bolten contempt resolution.
Also, a Wednesday vote would have had Republicans voting on contempt and then traveling to the White House for a picnic, a potentially ugly scene.
Republicans discussed but did not seriously consider postponing the vote until after the recess, saying a stalemate clearly had been reached.
They also voted, 258-95, on a second resolution that authorizes the House to bring a civil lawsuit to enforce the contempt resolution. Twenty-one Democrats voted yes on the resolution.