The House of Representatives voted to find Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress this afternoon, a controversial and historic move that almost certainly sets up a battle in federal courts between Congressional Republicans and the White House.
At the heart of the contempt resolution are documents the Department of Justice has not turned over to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of a probe into the botched Fast and Furious gun smuggling operation.
From there, the debate spiraled out into partisanship, with Democrats accusing Republicans of a "craven, crass partisan move" and "shameful election-year politicking," and Republicans accusing Holder of misleading Congress and the White House of hiding something.
More than 100 Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, slowly filed out of the House chamber’s center aisle as the vote started, walking out on a vote to show they did not respect the process and would not participate.
The vote was as partisan as the debate, and the criminal contempt resolution passed 255-67, with one member voting present. Seventeen Democrats crossed the aisle to join Republicans in the majority.
The House immediately approved civil contempt resolution authorizing the Oversight Committee to hire counsel, go into court and seek an injunction to enforce the subpoenas for Department of Justice documents, which Republicans think might show who in the agency knew about the Fast and Furious program.
The vote sets off a monumental battle between the legislative and executive branches about President Barack Obama's efforts to claim executive privilege, and the extent Congress can investigate.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took the House floor during the debate to say House gave Holder and the DOJ "every chance to comply" with the subpoenas. And because Obama claimed executive privilege over the documents, he "leaves us no other options."
"No Justice Department is above the law, and no Justice Department is above the Constitution," Boehner said.
Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called it a "sad day" and said it was the first time in the history of America that a current cabinet officer was held in contempt of Congress. He called it an extraordinary action, especially because the average time between a resolution being voted out of committee and a vote being taking on the floor was 87 days.
The Oversight Committee approved the Holder contempt resolution eight days ago. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has been driving the Fast and Furious probe for 18 months, defended the move to pursue documents as part of Congressional oversight responsibilities under the Constitution.
Issa is seeking documents explaining how Holder and the department learned of controversial tactics used in Fast and Furious, and how that understanding "evolved" after Feb. 4, 2011, the day the department gave incorrect information to Congress about the investigation that it later rescinded.
"We were lied to. We were lied to repeatedly," Issa said on the House floor. "We are right to pursue this. And we are wrong if we settle for anything less than all the facts."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Oversight Committee, said that Holder had done the best he could and bent over backwards to work with the committee’s investigation. But Holder needed to protect the institution of the DOJ and not jeopardize ongoing investigations.
Holder, addressing reporters at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, called the contempt vote "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," Holder said in a prepared statement.
Holder predicted an "unnecessary court conflict" over the congressional subpoenas. "My efforts to resolve this matter short of such a battle were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and his supporters," Holder said. "It’s clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or obtaining the information they claimed to seek. Ultimately, their goal was the vote that – with the help of special interests – they now have engineered."
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement about the contempt vote that Republicans "pushed for political theater rather than legitimate Congressional oversight."
There was no immediate indication today as to when a court action might be filed.
Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.