On Wednesday, a GOP-led House committee voted in favor of citing Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to hand over documents the panel requested in its investigation of "Fast and Furious," a botched gun-running sting. President Obama this week tried to shield Holder by asserting executive privilege, a move that lets the executive branch hold onto material that was part of its internal deliberations. Republicans say they smell a cover-up. What happens next in this increasingly explosive showdown? Here, a brief guide:
Why did the committee vote against Holder?
Republicans suspect that Holder is hiding documents that will reveal when high-level Obama administration officials knew about problems with "Fast and Furious." In the operation, conducted from 2009 to 2011, law enforcement agents let drug-runners smuggle 2,000 AK-47s and other guns into Mexico, hoping to track them to drug cartel figures, but some of the weapons wound up being used in drug-related killings along the border. Holder says he has handed over, or offered to hand over, everything called for in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subpoenas, but the panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), disagrees.
Did the vote resolve the matter?
Hardly. After the 23-17 committee vote, with Republicans voting along party lines in favor of a contempt citation and Democrats voting against, the issue goes to the full House of Representatives for another vote. If the House agrees that Holder should be held in contempt of Congress, the case will be sent to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who will turn it over to a grand jury to decide whether charges should be filed.
So if the grand jury goes against Holder, he'll be prosecuted?
That, says NBC's Pete Williams, is where "it gets complicated." The Justice Department, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has long maintained that Congress can't launch a prosecution against executive branch officials because of the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution. Not only that, but the Justice Department has always said that no U.S. attorney can prosecute anyone over documents Congress wants if the president has asserted executive privilege over them.
What if the case does go to court?
The House could go for a criminal contempt charge, which carries a penalty of $1,000 and up to one year in prison, George Washington University Law School Associate Dean Alan Morrison tells CNN, but that "would look like terrible overreaching." It's more likely Republicans would pursue civil prosecution in federal court, as it did when Democrats held George W. Bush White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten in contempt (over Bush's assertion of executive privilege) in an investigation into the (allegedly political) firing of federal prosecutors. No matter what happens, legal experts say, a court case would likely drag on beyond the expiration of the current Congress, which would send the dispute back to square one.