The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, bringing to a head a simmering struggle between congressional Republicans and a Democratic administration.
In the first such action against a sitting attorney general, the House voted overwhelmingly against Holder, even as dozens of Democrats walked out of the chamber to protest what they called a political stunt. Seventeen Democrats joined with Republicans in voting to hold Holder in contempt.
The House also approved a civil contempt charge against Holder, believing the earlier criminal sanction wasn't likely to be pursued by Holder's own Justice Department.
Holder said the proceeding "may make for good political theater in the minds of some, but it is -- at base -- both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people."
The votes come after Holder refused to hand over to lawmakers documents related to the botched Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. President Obama invoked executive privilege to shield the documents from lawmakers' scrutiny, but that appeared only to anger Republicans, who immediately pressed for the unprecedented vote.
Still, the vote was more about symbolic heft than any real legal repercussions for Holder.
Though the matter is unlikely to be resolved for months, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle refused to blink on Thursday.
"The Justice Department did not provide the facts and information we requested," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The administration admitted misleading Congress. The only recourse for the House is to continue seeking the truth."
Declaring the Fast and Furious investigation and resulting vote a "witch hunt," Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, walked out of the proceedings.
"What [Republicans] are doing is exploiting a very unfortunate circumstance for reasons that I cannot even characterize," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling the motion a "heinous act." "I'm telling you: It's Eric Holder today, anybody else tomorrow."
The 17 Democrats who supported the contempt vote were mostly from more conservative districts in which the National Rifle Association pressured officials to back the contempt vote. The NRA is worried that Obama could use Fast and Furious to pursue gun control.
Under Fast and Furious, U.S. guns were allowed to flow into Mexico so they could be tracked to drug traffickers. But the guns began turning up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. border agent.
The Justice Department earlier this week delivered reams of documents in hopes of satisfying the demands of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. But no deal was reached, leading to Thursday's showdown.
In walking out, Democrats were doing what Republicans did in 2008, when Democrats held similar contempt votes against Bush administration officials over the firings of U.S. attorneys.
The White House and congressional Democrats said Republicans' pursuit of the Fast and Furious investigation was distracting Congress from more important issues like the economy.
"Unfortunately, a politically motivated agenda prevailed," said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, "and instead of engaging with the president in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy, today we saw the House of Representatives perform a transparently political stunt."