Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista), left, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Conservative Democrats began to desert Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on the eve of a historic contempt of Congress vote, as Republicans upped the ante by planning to take Holder to court themselves if he doesn't hand over 1,500 pages in documents on a failed gun-tracking operation.
House vote-counters predicted that 20 to 31 Democrats would desert their party largely because the influential National Rifle Assn. threatened to oppose lawmakers who supported the attorney general.
The House scheduled up to two hours of debate Thursday before it votes on whether Holder, one of President Obama's closest and most trusted Cabinet allies, should be held in contempt.
It would be the first time a sitting member of the president's Cabinet has been held in contempt.
Holder has repeatedly rebuffed a congressional subpoena to turn over 1,500 pages of internal Department of Justice documents detailing his handling of the botchedBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesprogram known as Fast and Furious.
The House will consider two resolutions. The first would ask the U.S. attorney in Washington to file a criminal case to force Holder to comply with the subpoena. The other would permit the House to hire an outside attorney to file a civil lawsuit asking a judge to compel Holder to cooperate.
Otherwise, a contempt resolution likely would die once it was sent to the U.S. attorney, who works for Holder and likely would not force his boss to comply because Obama has asserted executive privilege to keep the documents sealed.
Although the GOP-controlled House does not need Democratic votes to pass the contempt resolution, the fact that a growing number of Democrats may switch sides points to the volatility of the increasingly political situation.
Two Democrats announced they would join the GOP in finding Holder in contempt for Fast and Furious, in which federal agents allowed 2,500 firearms to be illegally purchased on the Southwest border. Two of the guns were recovered when U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.
"The Terry family, the public and Congress deserve answers," said Rep. Jim Matheson, a six-term Democrat from Utah. "Sadly, it seems that it will take holding the attorney general in contempt to communicate that evasiveness is unacceptable. It is a vote I will support."
Said Rep. John Barrow, a Georgia Democrat in his fourth term: "The only way to get to the bottom of what happened is for the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents." Then, he said, "We can work together to ensure this tragedy never happens again."
Though the Democrats did not say they were reacting to the NRA and Gun Owners of America, the messages from those two organizations have been palpable over the last several days.
NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox charged in a letter circulated on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration had launched Fast and Furious to "advance its gun control agenda" and that only a vote for contempt would be acceptable.
"This is an issue of the utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate evaluations," Cox said.
In a separate message, Gun Owners of America called upon individual firearm owners to demand that their Washington representatives "hold Eric Holder in contempt of Congress."
"That's why GOA needs to keep the heat on every congressional member," the group said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer(D-Md.), the House minority whip, acknowledged that "some members will consider the recommendations of the NRA."
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has predicted that as many as 31 Democrats will vote with Republicans, based on the number of Democrats who joined Republicans a year ago asking Obama to direct Holder to cooperate with Congress. Other House aides put the likely number of Democratic defections at 20.
But some conservative Democrats are remaining loyal to their party.
"The House is rushing to judgment on this important issue," said Rep. Jim Cooper, in his 11th term from Tennessee. He said Congress should wait for the Justice Department's inspector general to finish the investigation into Fast and Furious, which he said "is nearing completion."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the administration's stance that House Republicans are pushing contempt when they should be focusing on jobs and the economy. He said they "have made the strategic choice to try to score political points," and that "this is political theater."
A last-minute effort at compromise by White House and Justice officials was rebuffed by House Republicans on Tuesday. Administration officials showed them about 30 pages of the 1,500 pages in question, and promised more if they would stop the drive toward contempt. Issa and the Republicans refused.