Former White House counsel Harriet Miers was cited for contempt in 2008.

Story highlights

House committee votes to cite Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt

Holder is first attorney general to face a potential contempt citation

Other White House officials, most recently under Bush, have been cited for contempt

If the House votes Holder in contempt, the House General Counsel could pursue legal action

CNN  — 

A House committee voted along party lines to cite Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over documents sought by the panel investigating the botched gun-running sting called Operation Fast and Furious. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama entered the dispute by asserting executive privilege over the documents sought by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California.

Here are the issues around the dispute:

Q: What is a contempt citation?

A: Congress can vote to hold a congressional witness in contempt of Congress if it considers the witness to be obstructing its ability to carry out its constitutional powers. For a person to be held in contempt, Congress must vote on a contempt citation in committee. This is different from finding a person in contempt, which only happens after the committee votes on a citation and then passes along the vote to the full house.

The process involves a series of legal maneuvers including the president’s ability to assert executive privilege, as he did in this case. Executive privilege is rarely accepted by Congress, but the Justice Department maintains that infringing on executive privilege erodes the balance of powers.

Q: Why was Holder cited for contempt?

A: The Oversight Committee cited Holder for contempt for failing to hand over all the documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious, the botched Justice Department sting operation linked to the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and a number of Mexican citizens from some of the 2,000 weapons that fell into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

Q: When is the last time an executive branch official faced a contempt citation?

A: Although this is the first time an attorney general has faced a contempt citation, other executive branch officials have been held in contempt of Congress.

Most recently, George W. Bush White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten were held in contempt of Congress despite Bush asserting executive privilege in their case. During the vote in early 2008, a large number of Republicans walked out in protest of what they saw as a partisan vote.

Miers and Bolten were accused of failing to cooperate in a congressional investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that the White House was using the Justice Department for political aims. Their citations marked the first time White House officials had been found in contempt of Congress.

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Q: What happens next?

A: The partisan 23-17 vote in favor of a contempt in committee sends the decision to the full House for another vote. If that vote finds Holder in contempt, then, according to George Washington University Law School Associate Dean Alan Morrison, it is unlikely that Holder will be prosecuted for criminal contempt.

“It would look like terrible overreaching to go for criminal contempt,” Morrison said, which carries a penalty of $1,000 and up to one year in prison.

Instead, Morrison says it is more likely the House will pursue civil prosecution in federal court, as it did in the Miers and Bolten cases. The House General Counsel’s office prosecuted the pair to gain access to the information Congress sought.

CNN’s Allison Brennan contributed to this report.