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The House of Representatives has voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. More than 100 Democrats refused to participate in that vote, they walked out in protest. This is the first time a U.S. attorney general has been held in contempt. House Republicans say Holder has failed to turn over documents they need to investigate a federal gun smuggling probe that went bad. The Obama administration says those documents are protected by executive privilege.
NPR's Tamara Keith has been watching the debate on the House floor today and joins us now. And, Tamara, let's start with the outcome, what was the final vote tally, just how partisan was it?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There were two votes, one was for civil contempt and one was for criminal contempt, and the vote tallies were quite similar. Both passed easily with virtually every Republican voting in favor and just about 20 Democrats joining them. Democrats largely voted no or didn't vote at all. They walked out. It was quite dramatic with all of them walking out en masse as the vote started.
There's one other thing to know about this vote, the National Rifle Association made it a priority, so some of the yes votes from Democrats came from Democrats who've been endorsed by the NRA or from districts where their NRA score makes a big difference.
CORNISH: So help us understand what exactly is the House saying that Attorney General Eric Holder did wrong?
KEITH: House Republicans say he's withholding documents that would shed light on who knew what and when about the gun walking operation. It was known as fast and furious. And everyone agrees this operation was a total disaster. Federal agents, instead of intercepting illegally purchased guns, allowed them to stay in circulation with the hopes of capturing some high level arms traffickers. But these guns started showing up at crime scenes, including at the murder of a Border Patrol agent. His name was Brian Terry. And Holder says he didn't approve the operation. And House investigators have found no evidence that he did.
But what they are after are documents that are not related to the operation itself, but to how the Justice Department responded once word got out about the operation.
Here's Florida Republican John Mica, who's a member of the House Oversight Committee.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA: All we have asked for is the documents. All we want are the facts, and we have been thwarted.
KEITH: But I have to say, a lot of debate on the floor today wasn't about the documents. It was about whether this was politically motivated or not. And, of course, Democrats say it was.
CORNISH: And how did they back up that claim?
KEITH: Mostly they found fault with the investigation by California Republican Darrell Issa. They say it was rushed. That he didn't want to look back into the origins of this gun-walking tactic, which actually go back to the Bush administration, and that there were a number of witnesses that Issa refused to allow to testify.
Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: The minority staff has compiled a list of 100 inaccuracies. One hundred inaccuracies in the report that was the basis for this contempt resolution. One hundred, and they rush it into the floor. So don't tell me this is not about politics. Don't tell me this is not a witch hunt. It is exactly what it is.
CORNISH: And what about the man at the center of this, Eric Holder, his response?
KEITH: He made a statement, and he didn't hold back. He described it as the regrettable culmination of a misguided investigation during an election year, or, in other words, he said this was totally political.
ERIC HOLDER: It's clear that they were not interested in bringing an end to this dispute or even obtaining the information they say they wanted. Ultimately, their goal was the vote that - with the help of special interest - they now have engineered.
CORNISH: As we said earlier, this is the first time this has happened. So, Tamara, what's next?
KEITH: Well, the criminal contempt charge will be referred to a U.S. attorney, but of course, U.S. attorneys are part of the Justice Department, so that one isn't likely to go anywhere. With the civil contempt charge, the House could file suit, and there could be a legal battle in the courts.
CORNISH: NPR's Tamara Keith on Capitol Hill. Tamara, thank you.
KEITH: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.