Updated 5:01 p.m. - Republicans in the House voted Thursday to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress in a politically-charged vote stemming from an investigation into alleged gun-running by the U.S. government.
The House voted 255-67, with one member voting "present," to cite Holder for criminal contempt. Most Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, abstained from the vote and staged a walk-out. But 17 conservative moderate and Democrats voted in favor of the resolution; two Republicans broke ranks to oppose it.
The House staged the vote against Holder for refusing to turn over documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight and Government Reform in relation to its investigation into the "Fast and Furious" program. The investigation is probing whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deliberately allowed firearms to fall into the hands of drug cartels in Mexico.
The vote came on a day already marked as politically signficiant, after the Supreme Court issued its opinion upholding President Barack Obama's signature health reform law.
"Over the past fourteen months, the Justice Department accommodated Congressional investigators, producing 7,600 pages of documents, and testifying at eleven Congressional hearings. In an act of good faith, this week the administration made an additional offer which would have resulted in the Committee getting unprecedented access to documents dispelling any notion of an intent to mislead," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement. "But unfortunately, a politically-motivated agenda prevailed 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."
Republicans had sought an agreement with the White House earlier in the week, but talks broke down.
"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," House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning. "We're going to proceed. We've given them ample opportunity to comply."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, speaking after the walk-out, called the vote an "abuse of power."
The vote, like most scheduled in Congress for the rest of this summer, is certainly imbued with election year politics. The oversight panel, led by California Rep. Darrell Issa, has been a consistent thorn in the administration's side, and has tangled frequently with Holder.
"Today's vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided -- and politically motivated -- investigation during an election year," Holder said. "By advancing it over the past year and a half, Congressman Issa and others have focused on politics over public safety."
Tensions escalated last week when the White House invoked executive privilege over documentation sought by Issa as his committee prepared its own contempt vote. Republicans, in turn, have asked how the White House could invoke privilege when there are few indications that it had anything to do with "Fast and Furious."
That program came to national attention in late 2010 when a border agent was killed with a firearm purchased by suspects under investigation by the ATF. Conservative news outlets have pushed the story as a potential example of federal malfeasance, and Republicans have voiced suspicion about whether the Obama administration had known about the program. A Fortune magazine investigation published Wednesday, however, suggesting the ATF's work to intercede in illegal arms trafficking was hamstrung by personnel disputes and prosecutorial discretion.
"It is a political hatchet job and I believe the American people are disgusted with Congress, these types of actions, and we should vote no on this contempt process that will be on the floor tomorrow and return to the real problems confronting the American people," New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) said on Wednesday of the vote.
But 17 of Maloney's colleagues -- as many 20 conservative and moderate Democrats, according to reports -- broke with their party and join Republicans in holding Holder in contempt. The politically powerful National Rifle Association sent notice to lawmakers that it intends to "score" this vote -- or, in other words, monitor members' votes in determining their endorsements in this fall's elections. (The pro-gun rights group is encouraging a "yes" vote to cite Holder for contempt.)
Democrats, when they controlled the House in 2007, voted to cite then-White House chief of staff Josh Bolton and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for contempt for refusing to testify in an investigation into allegedly politically-motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.
But contempt citations -- the House voted Thursday on both a criminal and civil contempt citation -- rarely proceed with much effect. While the citations are usually referred to a U.S. Attorney to present before a grand jury, administrations have historically invoked privileges that, they contend, don't compel them to prosecute.
The whole situation would seem to risk adding a degree of tarnish for the Obama administration as the president himself heads into the thick of the election season. Republicans have also sought to stoke inquiries into the administration's management of a program of loans to green energy companies, including the defunct solar energy firm Solyndra.
But while Mitt Romney frequently mentions the Solyndra bankruptcy on the campaign trail, he's made scant reference to "Fast and Furious." A spokesman for said the former Massachusetts governor supports citing Holder for contempt.
NBC's Frank Thorp contributed reporting.