WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House purposely timed its vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress to come in the shadow of the momentous Supreme Court ruling on the nation's heath care law, Democrats said.
Democrats said the contempt vote offers a sop to the GOP's right-wing base when most Americans, who might be reminded of Republican overreach during Clinton-era investigations, are focused on health care.
More than 100 Democrats walked out of the vote, pressed by Republicans to express displeasure that Holder has not turned over some documents that date after the failed Fast and Furious gun-running investigation ended with the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
"I think the Republican leadership wasn't so eager to be doing this, and let's get it overshadowed," said one senior Democratic congressman who joined the walkout. "The leadership might not have been so eager to do this in the full light of day. I suspect the Republican leadership realize how ridiculous this is, how bad it looks."
Several Democratic operatives said that the move may remind people of the ugly showdowns during Bill Clinton's presidency, when many analysts said the GOP-led impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky intern scandal helped Democrats in the elections.
"One of the biggest drivers of voter disapproval is the belief that Congress has focused on the wrong priorities for the last 18 months, so spending another week scoring political points rather than creating jobs will push their ratings even lower," one Democratic operative said. "The inmates run the asylum other there, but the Republican leadership knows they don't need to remind voters of that."
According to the Atlantic's Molly Ball, at least one GOP source admitted its leaders wanted to avoid an "embarrassing spectacle."
Democratic Party Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) also saw the GOP move as carefully planned.
"Nothing is a coincidence with them," Wasserman Schultz told HuffPost. She predicted Americans would notice.
"They can't get away with that," Wasserman Schultz said. "This vote is another example of the fact that the Republicans have allowed the extremists in the Tea Party to take over."
GOP leaders insisted the process was exactly what they said -- a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of a botched operation that left an agent dead, and to prevent it from happening again.
“I think all the members understand this is a very serious matter. The Terry family wants to know how this happened and they have every right to have their answers. The House needs to know how this happened, and it is our constitutional duty to find out," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
But even Boehner signaled that the topic might not be the best now.
“I don’t take this matter lightly, and I frankly hoped it would never come to this," Boehner said. "The House’s focus is on jobs and on the economy. But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold."
Wasserman Schultz said she thought the extreme nature of the contempt vote, just a week after a committee recommendation to the House, was obvious.
"This is the first time in American history that the Congress has voted on contempt for a cabinet officer, in spite of the fact that the chairman of the committee acknowledges there was no attempt, no evidence of covering anything up," Wasserman Schultz said, referring to a statement by Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, whose efforts sparked the contempt vote.
Boehner argued that the vote became necessary only after the White House invoked its executive privilege to keep documents secret -- a step the administration took the same day Issa's committee voted for contempt.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents a district in California. She represents the 20th District in Florida.