WASHINGTON — Conservative Democrats began to desert Attorney General Eric Holder 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 Association threatened to oppose lawmakers who support the attorney general.
The House scheduled up to two hours of debate today before it votes on whether Holder, one of President Barack 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 botched ATF Fast and Furious program.
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 up the volatility of the increasingly political situation.
Two veteran Democrats — Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, and Rep. John Barrow of Georgia — said 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 and two 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 Matheson.