17 Democrats join GOP in Holder rebuke
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WASHINGTON -- When the House voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, more than 100 Democrats walked out, denouncing the vote as a political sham.
But they left behind a group of 17 Democrats who face some of the toughest re-election contests in the nation, and that group joined Republicans in rebuking Mr. Holder.
That solid block of Democratic support for the contempt motion against an attorney general appointed by a Democratic president was a testament to the GOP's ability in making Mr. Holder radioactive in some key swing districts and to the enduring political influence of the National Rifle Association in Washington.
Despite the vote, the Justice Department on Friday told House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that Mr. Holder's decision to withhold some information from an ongoing congressional probe into Operation Fast and Furious didn't constitute a crime and would not be prosecuted.
Republicans expect the vote to energize some of their most loyal supporters. But for the Democrats who voted with them, it was a chance to demonstrate independence from the party leadership and to keep NRA attack ads at bay.
"They can use this as a stark reminder that they did not follow their party leader out the door," said analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "These Democrats are trying to carve out records to let them prove their independence."
The NRA announced last week that they would include the lawmakers on their closely watched legislative score card. This week, the group turned over its website home page to a graphic calling for NRA members to pressure lawmakers to vote in favor of the contempt charge.
"In my district, I hear a lot about Fast and Furious. It's in the public discourse," said Pennsylvania's Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, who represents a conservative Western Pennsylvania district and supported contempt. His own vote, he said, was motivated by a desire to see Mr. Holder release documents requested by Congress. But he said the NRA has successfully raised the visibility of the gun-running operation.
Republicans pursued contempt charges against Mr. Holder after the Obama administration withheld documents demanded by lawmakers as part of an investigation into Fast and Furious, a flawed federal gun operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, from 2009 to 2011.
Several Democrats who backed the resolution said they voted with Republicans because they believed that Mr. Holder was thumbing his nose at the House's oversight responsibility.
"I feel Congress has a constitutional responsibility to exercise effective oversight, regardless of which administration," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who stood quietly in a dark House floor corner Thursday as most of his Democratic colleagues walked out. "If there is nothing incriminating in those documents, I see no reason why they should not have been turned over."
Of the 17 Democrats voting for the contempt charge, all but one had previously received NRA endorsement, highly coveted by Democrats running in conservative districts.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said it is too early to say whether lawmakers who opposed contempt might lose the group's endorsement. But he added: "We said we would support this vote and [that] this vote counted. We meant it, and it will."
First Published June 30, 2012 12:00 am