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Congress' Eric Holder contempt vote: 4 takeaways

House Republicans (and 17 Democrats) succeed in holding President Obama's attorney general in contempt of Congress. A concise guide to what it means

Thursday was an awfully big news day, beginning with a historic Supreme Court ruling that upheld most of President Obama's health care overhaul, and ending with a House vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal and civil contempt of Congress, making him America's first attorney general ever to be held in contempt. The House censured Holder for refusing to turn over thousands of documents potentially relating to the disgraced ATF gunrunning sting operation Fast and Furious. (Click here for a helpful primer on Fast and Furious.) Here, four takeaways from the House's extraordinary vote:

1. Democrats call it "a transparently political stunt"
The vote followed an acrimonious floor debate, with Democrats calling the contempt measure a politically motivated witch hunt against Holder. More than 100 House Democrats showed their displeasure by walking out of the chamber instead of voting, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), No. 2 House Democrat Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), and all 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The White House dismissed the vote as "political theater" and a "transparently political stunt." Republicans similarly walked out in 2008, when Pelosi's Democrats voted to hold two George W. Bush officials in contempt of Congress.

2. But the vote was actually bipartisan
The claim by Democrats and the liberal mainstream media that this is a "political witch hunt" would be more believable if it weren't for the inconvenient fact that "17 Democrats crossed party lines and voted to find Eric Holder in contempt of Congress," says Dana Pretzer at Scared Monkeys. Yes, the contempt vote was technically bipartisan (two Republicans also voted no), but "17 aye votes from Democrats is actually lower than what even Democratic leaders were predicting," says David Dayen at Firedoglake. Once the NRA made a big push to scare "pro-gun Democrats into the aye column," Democratic leaders were bracing for even more defections.

3. This is still primarily an inside-the-Beltway story
The contempt vote is important to politicos on both sides. Democrats thunder that they're outraged over the unprecedented contempt vote and Republicans shout that they're outraged over the death of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in 2010, possibly by a Fast and Furious-connected assault rifle, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. But the "amped-up oratory" from both sides will only "convince people that all the bad things they think about Congress are, well, true." For most Americans, "the vote on 'Fast and Furious' — which they almost certainly hadn't heard about before [Thursday] — simply reaffirms their belief that Washington is broken and neither party has any real solutions to fix it."

4. And Republicans just fired their last bullet
This vote was a big deal in some ways, but not in any practical sense, says Robert Beckhusen at Wired. After holding Holder in contempt, "there's almost nothing left for Congress to do." They'll turn the case over to one of Holder's subordinates, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, but the odds that Machen will go after his boss are "around zilch." The House will likely also use its civil contempt vote to press charges against Holder in federal court, but nothing will happen there for years, "long after public interest has waned." As Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz tells CNN, "Just by going to court, the House guarantees it loses." So if you're waiting for an action-packed sequel to this vote, "don't hold your breath, and don't expect any charges."

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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