WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to disclose internal Justice Department documents in response to a subpoena. It was the first time in US history that Congress had imposed that sanction on a sitting member of a president’s Cabinet.
The vote — 255-67, with one member voting present — followed an acrimonious and politically charged debate. Many Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest without voting, accusing Republicans of railroading the motion so they could inflict political damage on the Obama administration during an election year.
The dispute centers on whether the Justice Department must turn over e-mail and memorandums showing its internal deliberations last year as officials grappled with a congressional inquiry about a botched Arizona-based gunrunning investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious. President Barack Obama has invoked executive privilege to block the subpoena.
In early jostling Thursday, Republicans repeatedly invoked the death of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in a shootout in December 2010. Two guns that had been purchased by a suspect in the gunrunning case the previous January were found near the scene.
‘‘These contempt charges aren’t about politics,’’ said Representative Rich Nugent, a Florida Republican. ‘‘They aren’t about Attorney General Holder or President Obama or anything else but this: A man died serving his country and we have a right to know what the federal government’s hand was in that. It’s clear this country somehow played a role in his death. We need to root it out, find the cause and make sure this never, ever happens again.’’
Democrats dismissed the effort as an election-year witch hunt. They said previously disclosed documents and testimony had established that Fast and Furious was the work of Arizona-based law enforcement officials who were frustrated by the difficulty of bringing low-level gun cases, and they contended that Republicans were seeking to embarrass Holder for political reasons.
With Republicans in the majority in the House, there was little doubt that the final vote would be to cite Holder for contempt, as well as to authorize a lawsuit asking a judge to order the Justice Department to surrender the documents.
The only question was how many Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts would cross party lines to join in citing Holder. The National Rifle Association was pressuring them to do so, announcing that it would score the vote in its report card on how lawmakers approached Second Amendment gun rights.
In the end, 17 Democrats voted yes. They included some of the most endangered incumbents, among them representatives Larry Kissell of North Carolina, Ben Chandler of Kentucky, and Kathy Hochul of New York. Representative Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is running for the Senate, also voted yes. The gun group Gun Owners of America released a letter this week specifically demanding a yes from Donnelly.
The walkout echoed one by many Republicans in 2008, when the House, led by Democrats then, cited two Bush administration officials for contempt in a dispute about information related to a mass firing of US attorneys.
“We’re going to make it clear we’re disappointed with the process and the superficiality with which this matter has been dealt with,’’ Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and the House minority whip, said Thursday.
A citation for contempt of Congress carries symbolic weight, but its practical impact is limited because the executive branch controls prosecution decisions.
Fast and Furious was an investigation by Phoenix-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into a gun-smuggling network that recruited low-level ‘‘straw buyers’’ — people without criminal records who could lawfully purchase weapons — to buy guns, which were then funneled to a Mexican drug cartel.
The investigation, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011, is controversial because investigators, frustrated at the difficulty of bringing cases against suspected straw buyers, are said to have used the risky tactic of ‘‘gunwalking,’’ meaning they sometimes failed to swiftly interdict weapons.
The suspects under scrutiny ended up purchasing about 2,000 guns, most of which are presumed to have reached drug gangs. In December 2010, two weapons purchased by one of the suspected straw buyers for the network were found at the site of a shootout in which Terry was killed.