Ultimately, they were powerless to prevent the blowup, pressed by a handful of Republican lawmakers who have driven the issue and a conservative base that has followed it closely.
Now a matter that has been a sideshow on the Republican right flank for months is moving center stage, giving once-reluctant Republicans a chance to portray the Obama White House as evasive, scandalous or even criminal — and giving the Obama team its own opportunity to portray the president as focusing on the economy while a do-nothing Congress fixates on a witch hunt.
“We are talking about a program that gave Mexican drug dealers guns, and those guns killed an American border agent,” Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters on Thursday, even as he tried to steer the conversation back to jobs. “The American people deserve the truth.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, responded by accusing Republicans of engaging in “a shameful display of abusive power” in pushing the issue. The White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, said Mr. Boehner’s colleagues “have made the strategic choice to score political points by focusing their time and attention on a botched 2009 law enforcement operation rather than on jobs and the economy.”
For two years now, Representative Darrell Issa of California, the hard-charging chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and two deputies, Representatives Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, have pursued the details of a 2009 gunrunning investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that went awry.
Seeking to build a bigger case against high-ranking gunrunners, agents did not move quickly against weapons obtained by low-level smugglers in the gunrunning operation. The agents lost track of 2,000 guns, most of which probably reached Mexican drug cartels. Two were found near the scene of a shootout in which a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed.
One of the Republicans pushing the investigation, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, conceded on Thursday that until this week, more Americans would have associated “Fast and Furious” with a movie about cars than a Washington controversy. But then on Wednesday the White House invoked executive privilege to protect documents related to Fast and Furious from Congressional oversight, the Issa committee voted to refer a contempt of Congress citation against Mr. Holder to the full House, and the issue was joined.
Mr. Boehner said the vote would be held next week unless the disputed documents are turned over.
While Republicans acknowledge that the dispute has diverted them from their jobs message, they believe it will play to their advantage. Base conservatives have been weaving conspiracy theories for months, accusing the administration of a complicated plot to increase support for gun control by proving that gun dealers, governed by weak gun laws, were funneling firearms to Mexican drug lords.
Mr. Issa, appearing at the National Rifle Association’s April convention, raised the question himself, saying: “Could it be that what they really were thinking of was in fact to use this walking of guns in order to promote an assault weapons ban? Many think so.”
Some conservative voters have their own contempt for Mr. Holder, linking him to supposed scandals around the New Black Panthers and holding him responsible for the Justice Department’s efforts to overrule voter identification laws and to try some defendants charged in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in a civilian court near ground zero.
“Republicans are under pressure from home to vote for contempt,” Mr. Cole said.
Independent voters seem unaware of those undercurrents, but the basic facts of the case are scandalous on their own, Republicans say, and such voters are only now learning about them.
“There was a concerted effort to keep us on message,” Mr. Chaffetz said, referring to a Republican leadership marked by “skepticism and hesitation.”
“But this is ridiculous,” he added. “You’ve got people dead here.”
The Romney campaign, for its part, is steering clear.
“There are folks where the issue of Fast and Furious is definitely cause for concern,” said a Romney adviser who did not want to be identified as criticizing party leaders, “but the No. 1 issue, whether you’re looking at polls or talking to voters, is the economy. That’s where the governor is focused right now.”
Republicans are open about the political sensitivities of their move. Mr. Chaffetz said he called Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney’s main policy adviser, to warn him of the contempt vote. Mr. Boehner stressed that he has “been heavily involved in this now for months, making sure that the t’s were crossed, the i’s were dotted, and that what we were asking for was reasonable.”
But they believe that the White House made an unforced error when, just hours before the committee’s contempt citation vote, the president invoked executive privilege. White House officials portray the move as routine. Privilege has been invoked 24 times since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. But a controversy that was squarely on Mr. Holder’s desk suddenly had a presidential component.
“The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth,” Mr. Boehner said. “So what is the Obama administration hiding?”
To Democrats, all of that is noise over an issue only the most partisan Republicans know or care about. And it allows Mr. Obama to portray himself as focused on what is important, like the student loan rates that are days away from doubling unless Congress acts. He pressed that point on Thursday in the East Room of the White House.
Peter Baker contributed reporting.