RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And for the first time in American history, the House of Representatives has declared a sitting attorney general in contempt of Congress. In a pair of votes cast largely along party lines, the House moved to pursue criminal sanctions against Eric Holder and to take steps to sue him in federal court. They blame Holder for not turning over documents about the Fast and Furious gun scandal. The White House immediately criticized the move as a political stunt that would go nowhere. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has more.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: While most of official Washington had its eye on the Supreme Court, another historic event unfolded only a few blocks away in the U.S. Capitol.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: House calendar number 140, report to accompany resolution recommending that the House of Representatives find Eric H. Holder, Jr., attorney general, U.S. Department of Justice, in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with a subpoena...
JOHNSON: By a vote of 255 to 67, Republicans made Eric Holder the first Obama cabinet official, and the first sitting U.S. attorney general, to be held in contempt. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, put it this way.
REPRESENTATIVE TED POE: Even the attorney general cannot evade the law. Time for America to find out the truth about gun smuggling to Mexico. Time for a little transparency. Today is judgment day.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: This isn't about getting to the truth. This is about politics. It is about politics.
JOHNSON: That's Democrat Jim McGovern from Massachusetts. He pointed out the Justice Department had tried to settle the dispute at least twice by offering to turn over a batch of documents about its response to the flawed gun sting known as Fast and Furious. But California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who's been leading the investigation, rebuffed the deal. Then the White House asserted executive privilege to keep the materials secret, arguing they revealed internal deliberations and were, in other words, none of Congress's business.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, took a different view.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We've shown more than enough good faith, but the White House has chosen to invoke executive privilege. That leaves us no other options.
JOHNSON: From the U.S. attorney's office in New Orleans, the attorney general held his own news conference with a photo of President Obama hanging on the wall behind him. Holder called the House vote a disservice to the American people.
ERIC HOLDER: It's clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute, or even obtaining the information they say they wanted. Ultimately their goal was the vote that, with the help of special interests, they now have engineered.
JOHNSON: By special interests he means the National Rifle Association. The NRA was keeping score on how many lawmakers voted against Holder. Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton, a Democrat from Washington D.C.
DELEGATE ELEANOR HOLMES-NORTON: Any doubt that today's contempt resolution is political was put to rest when the NRA joined in to blowtorch vulnerable Democrats to vote for contempt today.
JOHNSON: Ultimately, fewer than two dozen Democrats cast their votes against Holder, and senior Democrats in the Senate and House, including John Dingell of Michigan, who described himself as a lifetime member of the NRA, went out of their way to back the attorney general. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus stormed out of the Capitol arm in arm to protest a vote they called shameful against the first black attorney general. So what happens next?
The criminal contempt citation will be sent to the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., who happens to work for Eric Holder. And if precedent is any guide, the U.S. attorney will do nothing. The House is also poised to sue for Fast and Furious documents, but Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, called that a waste of time too.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: And you know how this will end? It will end months or years from now with a settlement in federal district court in which the Justice Department will provide the very same documents they have already offered to provide.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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