WASHINGTON - House Republicans won a historic political fight to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, but the GOP probably is still a long way from obtaining documents it wants in an investigation of a bungled Justice Department gun-tracking operation.
There are two routes to enforcing the contempt citations approved by the House on Thursday, a criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit, although the White House on Friday virtually shut down the criminal path. The civil route through the courts would not be resolved anytime soon.
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White House spokesman Jay Carney said Justice Department going back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan has not pursued prosecutions in contempt cases involving assertions of executive privilege.
President Barack Obama invoked a broad form of the privilege to prevent sending department documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.
"This is pure politics," Carney said.
"Remarkably the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the attorney general knew of Operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.
"No evidence, so if you have no evidence as he has stated now about the White House and the attorney general, what else could this be but politics?"
More than 100 Democrats walked out of the House chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.
Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation, but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns from the gun-tracking operation were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.
Democrats promised closure as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation was the only way to get it.
Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.
"The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago," the statement said.
It all happened on the day that President Barack Obama's health care law survived in the Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.
About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt.
The matter goes to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who works under Holder.
A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and authorized the House to file a lawsuit.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal position that is designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.
Issa's committee will consult with the House counsel's office about a court challenge to the administration's decision not to cooperate, spokesman Frederick Hill said.
The documents were written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, when the Justice Department denied that guns purchased in the U.S. were allowed to "walk" across the border into Mexico, to early December 2011 when the department acknowledged the earlier assertion was in error.
Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to come clean about gun-walking. The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered in the failed strategy to track the weapons to gun-running rings.