Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. photographed before a House hearing on Feb. 2, 2012. (KEVIN LAM/REUTERS)

At least four House Democrats plan to vote with Republicans to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress and dozens more may join them, potentially undercutting the Obama administration’s argument that the vote is an election-year ploy by Republicans.

The four Democrats — John Barrow (Ga.), Nick Rahall (W. Va.), Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) — maintain generally moderate voting records and face challenging reelection campaigns in moderate- or Republican-leaning districts.

Their votes may be influenced by the National Rifle Association, which supports the contempt citation and said it plans to track how members vote Thursday in determining future endorsements. The four have received NRA endorsements in the past and several moderate Democrats rely on the organization’s support in election years.

The House is scheduled to vote Thursday to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into Operation “Fast and Furious,” a botched gun-running operation led by the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. If the vote succeeds, Holder would be the first attorney general in U.S. history held in contempt of Congress.

The list of supportive Democrats could grow. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a Democratic member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Justice Department, told reporters Wednesday that “a couple dozen” other Democrats could join with Republicans because of NRA pressure.

“But I think it really begs the question of why is the NRA picking this fight,” Schiff said. “Is it just the NRA’s fight with the attorney general and are the members who support the contempt vote, from whatever party tomorrow, merely supporting the NRA and others in a partisan attack on the attorney general?”

In a letter to lawmakers last week, the NRA said, “It is no secret that the NRA does not admire Attorney General Holder.” But the gun rights group said it supports the contempt resolution because the Justice Department is obstructing a congressional investigation.

Democrats planning to vote for contempt signaled they were doing so reluctantly.

In a statement, Rahall said, “This matter should never have come to the point that the Congress would be considering the question of contempt.” But, “as with most messes, the sooner we clean it up, the better. This has gone on way too long over two Administrations. We need to move on.”

Barrow agreed, saying in a statement, “The only way to get to the bottom of what happened is for the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents, so that we can work together to ensure this tragedy never happens again.”

Matheson cited his constituents in a statement: “Utahns expect and deserve transparency and accountability from government officials,” he said, adding later that “sadly, it seems that it will take holding the Attorney General in contempt to communicate that evasiveness is unacceptable.”

Peterson’s office said he would vote for contempt, but had no plans to issue a statement.

Even House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sounded a reluctant tone when discussing the issue with reporters Wednesday.

“We’d really rather not be there,” he said. “We’d really rather have the attorney general and the president work with us to get to the bottom of a very serious issue. The United States government ran a gun-running operation that has resulted in hundreds of deaths. Brian Terry’s family has a right to know what happened. The American people have a right to know what happened. And we’re going to proceed.”

Terry is the U.S. Border Patrol agent who was killed in December 2010; investigators determined that two guns connected to his murder were tied to Fast and Furious.

With Republicans moving forward with the contempt vote, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney once again blasted the plans: “This is not why Americans across the country go to the ballot box every other November to elect members of the House. They don’t do it so that the House — Congress in general — engages in political gamesmanship and theater, and launches fishing expeditions.”

Congressional Democrats planning to vote against the contempt charges also did their best to amplify their objections.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member in the House, told colleagues in a letter that “I am offended by the way the Majority has handled this investigation.” He faulted the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for declining to invite witnesses requested by Democrats to testify at hearings on the matter.

At a midday press conference, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called Thursday’s vote part of a “kangaroo court” with a predetermined outcome. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told reporters, “I call Fast and Furious ‘Vast and Spurious’ because there is nothing there.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said all he could think to do was quote from Woody Allen’s 1971 movie, “Bananas”: “It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”

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