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Arizona lawmakers split along party lines on Holder contempt vote

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WASHINGTON – Arizona lawmakers split along party lines Thursday as the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in its probe of Operation Fast and Furious, the government’s botched “gun-walking” investigation in Phoenix.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, joined 108 other House Democrats who walked out over the vote, which they criticized as mere politics, while fellow Arizona Democratic Reps. Ron Barber and Ed Pastor voted against the resolution.

All five of the Republican House members from Arizona voted for the contempt resolution. It passed 255-67 with one member voting “present” and 109 not voting.

What impact the vote will have is unclear: The criminal contempt resolution will be referred to District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., whose office reports to Holder. Machen will decide whether to charge Holder, who could face a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.

But Republicans hailed the vote – the first time a sitting Cabinet member has been held in contempt by Congress – as “long overdue.”

“Mr. Holder has demonstrated an abiding and consistent contempt for Congress,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, said shortly before voting. “I will contribute to the effort to hold him in contempt.”

Operation Fast and Furious was an investigation run out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that let straw buyers of weapons “walk,” in hopes of catching bigger members of drug and gun cartels.

But many of the more than 2,000 weapons that were allowed to walk in the program, which ran from 2009 to 2010, were lost and are believed to be in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border.

Some have been found at crime scenes, including two AK-47s that were found at the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Rio Rico, Ariz., in December 2010.

Several congressional committees have mounted investigations into Fast and Furious and similar operations. The contempt citation stems from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which accused Holder of refusing to hand over subpoenaed Justice Department documents that it believes would show who in the administration knew about the operation and when they found out.

The White House said shortly after Thursday’s vote that in addition to the 7,600 documents Holder has already turned over, it offered the committee this week “unprecedented access to documents dispelling any notion of intent to mislead.” An administration statement derided the House for rejecting the offer to instead “perform a transparently political stunt.”

Grijalva called the contempt vote a “foolish exercise” and little more than “political pandering” by House Republicans.

Barber, of Tucson, said now is the time to “focus on finding solutions to the problems facing communities on the border,” but to do so “we must put partisanship aside and work together.”

“Today’s vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt is in direct opposition to that goal and does nothing to further the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious,” Barber said in a statement after the vote.

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, called the contempt vote “welcome news for the people of Arizona.”

Other Arizona lawmakers joined in the heated two-hour debate on the House floor before the vote.

Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, said efforts by him and his colleagues to “uncover the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious” were met with “derision” from Holder.

“Let this vote be a signal to President Obama and Attorney General Holder … that there are, in fact, three branches of government,” Quayle said during debate.

The House also passed a civil contempt resolution that would let the committee go to court to attempt to force Holder to turn over the documents it has demanded.

- CNS reporter Samantha Bare contributed to this report.