User's manual to House contempt resolutions

The House of Representatives formally launches its effort to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress Wednesday. While the vote won't come until Thursday, the mechanics begin Wednesday at 2 pm ET in the House Rules Committee.

Garden variety contempt of Congress resolutions are usually "privileged." That means they come to the House floor automatically and get an hour of debate. They can't be amended and then the House votes, yea or nay, to hold whomever in contempt.

However, on this occasion, the floor process will start in the Rules Committee.

Here's why: The House will actually consider two contempt resolutions against Holder.

First of all, the House has the actual "criminal" contempt resolution that was voted on last week by the House Oversight Committee. If the House votes for that contempt resolution, the citation is then sent to the Justice Department and subsequently to a U.S. Attorney who is asked to look at the case and try to get an indictment of Holder for not responding to Congress.

But, there's also a "civil" contempt resolution. This citation was not approved by the Oversight Committee. This second resolution is interesting because, if adopted, it grants the House to go to court and ask for an order that the Department of Justice be compelled to fork over the Fast and Furious documents in question.

The House will then have to vote on both resolutions. It is conceivable, but not likely, that the House could approve one contempt resolution and not the other.

Here's what this all means: There will be separate sets of debate on both resolutions, followed by separate votes.

Also, by going to the Rules Committee, the House is able to build into the "rule" (which manages how the body handles the resolutions on the floor) a provision which prevents the reading of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee report on Fast and Furious. This is a time-saver because doing so, according to one senior aide, "would take six-and-a-half hours."

Also, by going to the Rules Committee, the House crafts the guidelines for debate and if any amendments will be in order. They are unlikely and could be blocked in the Rules Committee tomorrow.

So what does Thursday look like?

It's doubtful that the House will start any of this until 12:30 pm ET at the earliest (at least two hours after the Supreme Court health care there's a bit of a reprieve...but not necessarily by design).

The House will have to first debate the "rule." That takes an hour...and then the House votes on the rule.

If they don't adopt the rule, the entire process comes to a screeching halt and Eric Holder is the happiest person in Washington.

If they adopt the rule, debate then starts on the two resolutions. Again, these will be separate debates. Each debate could take up to two hours. But we won't know for sure until the Rules Committee crafts its rule tomorrow.

Then, the House will vote on the two resolutions.

If the House votes yea on either resolution, it is fair to say that Holder has been held in contempt.

Keep in mind that this is a similar process that House Democrats used when the House voted to hold Bush White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and White House Counsel Harriet Miers in contempt in 2008. There are slight differences. The Democrats velcroed the two resolutions together and there was only one debate and one vote. Here the Republicans have separated the two issues, which means there will probably be more debate time.