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House Panel's Contempt Vote Against Holder Part Of Political Firefight

Good luck if you're looking to see what Americans think about the "Fast and Furious" gun-running controversy that has escalated into a constitutional fight between President Obama and the GOP-led House.

The No. 1 concern of voters is clear: In survey after survey, the economy comes out on top. But the impact of Fast and Furious, the since-killed program that funneled weapons from U.S. gun dealers to Mexican drug gangs, is a lot murkier.

(One of the rare polls on the issue, done by Rasmussen through an automated telephone survey, indicated that 40 percent of respondents wanted Attorney General Eric Holder to resign; 33 percent were undecided.)

But just because Fast and Furious hasn't been a top-of-mind issue for most voters doesn't mean it lacks its political uses.

Ever since the ill-advised project came to light early in the Obama administration, it has been a cause celebre for many in the conservative base.

There are the people who are, on principle, suspicious of practically anything the Obama administration does. Then there are those who believe Fast and Furious was all an administration ploy to discredit gun sellers as a pretext for increasing gun control.

All that helped fuel Wednesday's party-line vote by the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform. It found Holder in contempt of Congress for not handing over all the Fast and Furious-related documents demanded by Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is the panel's chairman.

Wasting little time after the committee vote, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia announced they would schedule a House vote on the resolution for next week.

The decision came on the same day the Obama White House decided to assert executive privilege to protect the documents from Congress, a move that further inflamed the partisan war in the nation's capital. Holder saw a political motive in the contempt vote:

"It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people."

So how much of this process was shot through with politics, so to speak? "All of it, on both sides," says Stan Brand, who served as general counsel to the House when Democrats ran it in the 1970s and '80s and who specializes in cases that often touch politics and Congress. He continues:

"Look, everyone knows for the last 30 years at least, there's no way to enforce these [contempt of Congress actions]. Because the Justice Department has asserted the right not to indict anyone of congressional contempt who's asserting executive privilege. So the House has been forced in one case to file a civil lawsuit. That's the way these have to be resolved now. So all of this brouhaha and hoopla over contempt is largely atmospheric."

Brand said the only way to enforce the contempt-of-Congress action would be a tedious, time-consuming and unpredictable civil lawsuit, as happened late in the George W. Bush administration when two White House aides, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, were cited. That case took two years and never went past the district court level. Given that the Holder case could go all the way to the Supreme Court because it raises separation-of-powers issues, Brand joked: "Holder could well be on his 401(k) by the time the time it's all said and done."

But there's an election a lot sooner than that, of course. And in case there was any doubt that Fast and Furious might figure in that election, the National Rifle Association didn't pull any punches.

In a letter to House leaders of both parties expressing the group's support for the contempt action, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox wrote:

"The reason we support the contempt resolution is the same reason we first called for Attorney General Holder's resignation more than a year ago: the department's obstruction of congressional oversight of a program that cost lives in support of an anti-gun agenda. ... This is an issue of the utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate evaluations."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the gun debate, Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a blog post earlier in the week that it was the House Republicans, not Holder, who were the problem.

"Although the American people can't hold Congress in contempt, it can hold its members accountable at the polls come November. The American public can start now, by making it clear that there will be a political price to pay for any member who continues to do the bidding of the gun lobby, offering nothing but transparent hypocrisy to families in Mexico, and America, put at risk by weak U.S. gun laws.

"Every American can make an immediate and compelling statement by signing the Brady Campaign's online petition agreeing to make the gun issue a voting issue in the upcoming elections. As Sarah Brady has said, 'If our lawmakers will not change the gun laws, then for God's sake, let's change the lawmakers.' "

Unfortunately for the Brady campaign, there's little to no indication that most voters care enough, at least at this point, about gun violence for it to make a difference come November.

On the other hand, there are many conservative gun owners and hunters in battleground states, especially Ohio. The Fast and Furious contempt resolution against Holder could help energize them to the point where they will not only get to polls themselves but get others there as well.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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