WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday became the first Cabinet member held in contempt of Congress, a re-buke pushed by Republicans seeking to unearth the facts behind a bungled gun-tracking operation and dismissed by most Democrats as a political stunt.
The vote was 255-67, with more than 100 Democrats boycotting.
African-American lawmakers led the walkout as members filed up the aisle and out of the chamber to protest the action against Holder, who is the nation's first black attorney general. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California joined the boycott, saying Republicans had gone "over the edge" in their partisanship.
Seventeen Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of the contempt vote, while two Republicans - Reps. Scott Rigell of Virginia and Steven LaTourette of Ohio - joined other Democrats in voting against it.
The National Rifle Association pressed hard for the contempt resolution, leaning on members of both parties who want to stay in the NRA's good graces.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said all 17 Democrats who voted for criminal contempt had previously received an "A'' grade from the organization.
Holder said afterward that the vote was merely a politically motivated act in an election year
"Today's vote may make for good political theater in the minds of some, but it is - at base - both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people. They expect - and they deserve - far better," Holder said in New Orleans.
The attorney general said the House vote would result in an unnecessary court fight. Republicans "were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or even obtaining the information they say they wanted," he said. "Ultimately, their goal was the vote that - with the help of special interests - they now have engineered."
Republicans cited Holder's refusal to hand over - without any preconditions - documents that could explain why the Obama administration initially denied that a risky "gun-walking" investigative tactic was used in Operation Fast and Furious. 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.