Fast and Furious Showdown

Democrats Walk Out in Protest Over GOP’s Contempt Vote Against Eric Holder

As House Republicans cited Eric Holder for contempt, scores of Democrats staged a dramatic walkout in protest. Eleanor Clift on the deeply partisan case.

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To show their contempt for the House vote to hold Eric Holder in contempt, scores of Democrats walked out of the Capitol on Thursday, holding hands in a show of defiance against a process they regard as contemptible.

Inside, the tally to cite the attorney general for criminal contempt of Congress was 255 in favor, with 17 Democrats joining ranks with the GOP. Another 65 Democrats voted no, with 149 refusing to vote.

The walkout was led by the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Asian-Pacific Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus, and bolstered by the Democratic leadership: Nancy Pelosi in a bright white suit and second-in-command Steny Hoyer, whose decision to leave the House floor and join their members gave the walkout added heft. “You’re seeing the whole diversity of the Democratic caucus,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who took the microphone first.

“We are nonparticipants in what we believe to be a calamity,” he said. “This is a terrible day for the House of Representatives. What it’s about, we can’t decide for sure, but it’s not about Eric Holder and handing over papers. We don’t want to participate in something that has some kind of smell to it.”

Republicans insist they are motivated by getting at the truth behind the murder of border agent Brian Terry, whose picture was mounted on an easel on the House floor as members cast their votes. His death was a tragedy, the result of a flawed operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, when illegal guns allowed to flow into Mexico fell into the wrong hands. The Justice Department has turned over 7,000 documents, but the GOP demanded more.

But the gamesmanship on Capitol Hill has moved beyond seeking facts to what Democrats see as an effort to embarrass Holder and perhaps deter him from an agenda opposed by the Republicans. Pelosi cites Holder’s actions to block voter suppression in Florida and his challenge to state immigration laws as areas that have drawn the GOP’s ire. The suggestion that race might play a role in the move against the first African-American attorney general, and the animosity against him, adds to the poisonous political stew on Capitol Hill.

Appearing before cameras shortly after the vote, Holder delivered a controlled but clearly angry statement. He called the vote a “regrettable culmination” of many months of investigation, and one that could have been avoided. He condemned his critics for advancing what he called “a truly absurd conspiracy theory” in suggesting that the administration had conceived the gun-running operation known as Fast and Furious as a prelude to tightening gun regulations. And Holder vowed that he would not let “election-year politics and gamesmanship” stand in the way of his work, suggesting that “those who engineered today’s vote do the same.”

At the White House, communications director Dan Pfeiffer called the House vote “a transparently political stunt,” pointing out that Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had acknowledged that he has “no evidence—or even the suspicion—that the attorney general knew of the misguided tactics used in this operation.”

Speaking before the vote, Democrat John Dingell, a former committee chairman with 40 years of investigations behind him, called Fast and Furious “a highly irresponsible operation that should never have occurred.” But, noting that he serves on the National Rifle Association’s board, Dingell said: “This is not a Second Amendment question”—a rebuff that coming from him may have helped hold Democratic defections to just 17, below what had been expected.

But House Speaker John Boehner told reporters in the morning: “We'd rather not be there. We'd rather have the attorney general and president work with us to get the bottom of a very serious issue.”

The vote to cite Holder came in the late afternoon of a day that had begun with Republicans on the defensive over the Affordable Care Act when just days ago House Speaker Boehner had warned his members not to gloat too much over what they expected would be a victorious takedown of Obamacare. Then their much-heralded vote to make Holder the first sitting attorney general, and the first cabinet member ever to be cited by Congress for contempt, took second billing to Democrats borrowing a page from the movie classic Network and in effect declaring, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”